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In November 2005, riots spread throughout the suburbs of Paris following the accidental deaths of two teenagers in the poor banlieue district of Clichy-sous-Bois. Running from police, who had broken up their football game to conduct ID checks and questioning (this sort of action was allegedly frequent and lengthy), the two boys, who were of North African Muslim descent, hid in a power substation and were electrocuted. Whether or not the two young men were indeed victims of racial discrimination by police, their deaths set off a chain reaction of violence, looting, and rioting in schools, gyms, and police stations.
The world expected a response from Mathieu Kassovitz, whose film La haine ten years earlier had ignited debates about tensions between police and immigrant communities. Kassovitz decided to go public via his blog. He used his first post to take right-wing minister of the interior Nicolas Sarkozy to task, specifically for his remark that the rioters were “scum” and that they should be blasted out of the banlieues “with a fire hose.” Sarkozy responded, and the following dialogue resulted.
Mathieu Kassovitz wrote . . .
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
As much as I would like to distance myself from politics, it is difficult to remain distant in the face of the depravations of politicians. And when these depravations draw the hate of all youth, I have to restrain myself from encouraging the rioters. Nicolas Sarkozy, who has appeared in the media like a starlet from American Idol and who for the past few years has been showering us with details of his private life and political ambitions, cannot stop himself from creating an event every time his ratings go down. This time, Sarkozy (who last week described the rioters as “scum”) has gone against everything the French republic stands for: the liberty, the equality and the fraternity of a people. The minister of the interior, a future presidential candidate, holds ideas that not only reveal his inexperience of politics and human relations, but which also illuminate the purely demagogical and egocentric aspects of a puny, would-be Napoleon.
If the suburbs are exploding once again today, it is not due to being generally fed up with the conditions of life that entire generations of “immigrants” must fight with every day. These burning cars are [in direct response to] the lack of respect the minister of the interior has shown towards their community. Sarkozy does not like this community. He wants to get rid of these “punks” with high-pressure water hoses, and he shouts it loud and clear right in the middle of a “hot” neighborhood at 11 in the evening. The response is in the streets. “Zero tolerance” works both ways. It is intolerable that a politician should allow himself to upset a situation made tense by years of ignorance and injustice, and openly threaten an entire segment of the French population.
By acting like a warmonger, he has opened a breach that I hope will engulf him. Hate has kindled hate for centuries and yet Sarkozy still thinks that repression is the only way to prevent rebellion. History has proved to us that a lack of openness and philosophy between different communities engenders hate and confrontation. Sound and fury are the only means for many communities to make themselves heard. Sarkozy wants to become the president of our republic and nobody will get in his way, as he dramatically puts it. If this man does not fail at least once in his initiatives to win the presidency of this country, nothing indeed will get in his way, and his desire for absolute power will finally be fulfilled.
Does history repeat itself? Yes. It always has done. A desire for power and the egocentricity of those who think they hold the truth has always created dictators. Sarkozy is certainly a little Napoleon, and I do not know if he has the potential of a real one, but it will be impossible to say tomorrow that we didn’t know.
This is an edited version of Kassovitz’s statement.
Nicolas Sarkozy wrote . . .
November 22, 2006
I acquainted myself with the number of comments relating to the crisis that has struck several of our suburbs that you posted on your blog. Beyond the caricatures and the provocative assaults you aimed at me, I meant to answer you in person, mainly because I believe in the virtues of debate and dialogue, especially with those who do not subscribe to my acts and ideas.
Reading your blog, the first point that struck me is that it gave me to understand that the current crisis sprung up suddenly, like some unfortunate accident. You linked it to myself and to a few of my words in a shortsighted and Manichean fashion… I assume the straightforward, frank tone of these words, because they are based on the reality that a majority of our fellow citizens experience daily in the suburbs. Moreover, I consider that political cant and correctness, which have prevailed for decades, are connected to the rise of the National Front, against whose ideas and leaders I have always campaigned.
You seem to be acquainted with the suburbs well enough to know, deep inside you, that the situation has been tense there for many years and that the unrest is deep-rooted. Your film La haine, shot in 1995, already showed this unease that right-wing and left-wing governments had to deal with, with varying results. To claim this crisis is down to the Minister of the Interior’s sayings and doings is yet another way of missing the point. I attributed this to an untimely and quick-tempered reaction.
The second thing that shocked me is that you seem to clearly speak up for the minority, made of looters, rather than for the majority, made of families and young people who live in the suburbs too and who are sick of seeing the culture of violence and of power struggle undermine our legally constituted state. Why not speak up for those whose cars were burnt, and who are now deprived of a hard-earned tool, synonymous with work and freedom? Why not mention the young people whose gyms were burned down and the children whose schools were destroyed? Moreover, why not write a single word about the 110 injured policemen, the firemen hit by stones, the insulted doctors? Your emotional affinity with the suburban youths is understandable and respectable, but I feel that it leads you to accept the unacceptable. To make common cause with a minority whose actions are reprehensible, or even murderous in some cases, is not helping the situation in the suburbs. I even believe it has the reverse effect. To live in a working-class district or to be the son of immigrant parents or grandparents gives you no right to throw Molotov cocktails at the police and stones at firemen. To intimate the contrary is, in my opinion, to insult all those who behave as responsible citizens in similar living conditions.
I know very well that behind this crisis lie economic, social, and cultural factors. I appreciate the extent of the problem and that is why I campaign, notably, for positive discrimination, or for the right for foreigners to vote at local elections. It is time we shattered the mock equality this country has been used to for too long! It is time we gave multicultural France a chance, because I think it is an asset to be multicultural, rather than a shortcoming! In this respect, I meant to tell you that the police is without any doubt the public sector branch that represents the multicultural France that I hope for in the best way.
This new impetus that the suburbs are desperately in need of cannot materialize if the rules of the Republic are not restored. The rise of trafficking, violence, gang rape, and illegal immigration saps every effort undertaken. In these lawless areas, republican order is not the enemy of progress, but its ally.
We are dealing with one of the most complex and acute urban crises we ever had to face. This requires firmness and a lot of composure. This is precisely what I asked from the police force. They have honored our democracy by displaying such self-mastery and professionalism in action. Over the past four weeks, some of our units have been confronted with violence, and with a kind of brutality I beg you not to under-estimate, with composure and discipline.
These are some of the thoughts that came to my mind while reading your blog. I know that, in your own way and with your own beliefs, you are aiming at making the authorities realize what is really happening in the suburbs. For so many years, state and local services have injected a lot of money and undertaken a lot of efforts in these areas. The results did not live up to our hopes, and we all share the responsibility. How can we do better and differently? We now need to solve this problem.
Please feel free to contact me should you deem it profitable to continue this dialogue face to face.
Mathieu Kassovitz replied . . .
Dear Minister of the Interior,
This letter, which was not directed at you, but which you promptly answered, is neither praising the looters nor insulting the firemen at whom stones were thrown or the injured policemen. The very fact that you perverted my comments in order to avoid dealing with the real issues underlines your blindness towards your responsibility in these events. Whatever you might say, the French suburbs truly exploded a few hours after you had inopportunely uttered those harsh and cutting words after the trauma caused by an accident that provoked the deaths of two teenagers in atrocious circumstances. A tragic accident, highly symbolic of the living conditions in the French suburbs.
You accuse me of not caring for the burning gyms, cars, and schools that I was already talking about ten years ago in La Haine, which you mention even though I do not think that you saw it. I do not need to live in those suburbs or to be an academic to understand that the authorities are representative of a state which refuses to face the problem and whose successive administrations keep on blaming each other, like you do so brilliantly.
You say you are not responsible. The policemen and the firemen who courageously covered up for your blunders are the unfortunate victims of your aggressive policies, along with the inhabitants of the suburbs who lost their vehicles and, for some of them, their means of subsistence. Do not blame a situation, whose history is known by all, for the consequences of your words. If you are not the only one responsible for the suburbs’ crisis, you are its political symbol, and your comments sparked off a revolt that has overcome you. The fact that criticism offends you surprises me and makes me question your capacity for reappraisal.
You are right to say that “republican order is not the enemy of progress, but its ally,” however, in order to restore Republican order in the suburbs, it is critical that the Republic’s representatives are above suspicion. You have, as usual, cleverly handled the treatment of the impact of these riots and of the images by the media, and fortunately, you have instructed the police force to stay calm, but do not lead the world’s media to believe that the police has always acted as it did over the last four weeks. You are well aware of the fact that the respect issue between the police and the youths is not a recent one. Left-wing and right-wing administrators come and go, but this issue has remained a daily problem for many generations now.
The brutal death of Malik Ousekine, followed by Charles Pasqua (one of your predecessors)’s inhuman remarks, date from 20 years ago. The history of present-day France is stained with the blood of Makomé, shot down in cold blood in a police station of the 18th arrondissement, and of many other victims of the decline of the Republican values you defend. This history, full of injustice, fuels our present. I am only asking you not to forget, even if you are not directly responsible for this. We need to reeducate people, and not manipulate them. The dissention between forces of law and order and the suburbs’ young people is a deep-rooted problem, which can only be solved by serious effort to educate both parties.
I am not opposed to the police; on the contrary, I am in favor of a better-respected, better-educated, and more human police… A kind of police I can trust over my personal and my children’s security, regardless of social condition, skin color, age, or belief… When you mention a return to the Republican values, don’t forget that you have to command respect before you can expect it in return. Since the police has lost the respect it should command, then once again you should ask yourself what the real problems are. You claim to be turned towards the future, yet your methods are repressive and obsolete. You panicked and voted the return of a military law dug out from some of the darkest days in the history of our country . The choice of this highly symbolic law is a disgrace to our country and its politicians. Yet, as usual, you are not responsible.
You end your letter by a cold and terrible statement, like a director in front of a negative balance sheet: “For so many years, state and local services have injected a lot of money and undertaken a lot of efforts in these areas. The results did not live up to our hopes, and we all share the responsibility.” Do you think you can manage France like any multinational company? The results did not live up to the hopes of France, whose reality you, politicians from all parties, have refused to face for too long. Do you think you can make the young people who cast a shadow on your policies “redundant”? Or get rid of them like some rubbish on the pavement? Democratic balance was never achieved through repression, and you know that if a solution exists, it is to be found in social assistance and in the understanding of the issues. What is going to happen if you stop the dialogue?
It is the French authorities’ as well as your duty to react to the violence in an intelligent way in order to not lose all contact with young people who could, for some of them, turn to more extreme and truly dangerous forms of violence. You are not responsible. Indeed, I think you are irresponsible. When you took a walk in Argenteuil at 11 p.m., surrounded by policemen and journalists, you probably wanted a taste of the life in the suburbs, like any other citizen, instead of causing an unavoidable confrontation. As regards to your “few words,” when you trumpeted that you were going to “clean up the suburbs with a high-pressure hose,” perhaps you meant: rehabilitate and clean up those dilapidated buildings where children fall down the lift shafts because of lack of maintenance, and help these families, who pay taxes like everybody else, regain the respect and the decent environment they have been deprived of for so long. When you threatened to get rid of “the scum,” maybe you meant: send the few really dangerous individuals—known to the police—to prison for a long time, and offer a majority of these young people the possibility to envisage a better future through coherent and generous social assistance to help them get out of delinquency.”
Like many other French people, I must have misunderstood. The battle you want to fight, dear Minister, we all want to fight it with you. Apart from a few real gangsters who fuel the violence through the drug networks and who poison everybody’s life in the suburbs, all the others, including the baseball cap-wearing youths you call “scum”—some of them are locked up in your overcrowded prisons—share a common wish: they want a future, standard living conditions, respect, identity… With all due respect to you, I do not want “to continue this dialogue face to face,” as I object to meeting with you. I appreciate your commendable wish to communicate with your opponents, especially when they are well known to the media, but please allow me to stick to my status of critical citizen with no political ties.
Despite what you say, I only speak for myself, not for a political party, not for the suburbs, and even less for the looters. However, your invitation shows that you are open to dialogue, and I hope you will use this quality with the people who are directly concerned. Instead of meeting me, let me ask you to meet the various actors of suburban life, and particularly the thousands of nonprofit local organizations who do all they can to keep in constant contact with millions of people. Offer them your help; they desperately need it.
I would like to end this brief exchange by assuring you of my profound attachment to the culture and to the values of our country. The debate is that inflamed because we are all concerned. Our open-minded culture is specific to us and unique, and our social policies are praised as an example by all the other nations, even if the reality shocked the rest of the world.
We are French, and whatever our politics, we are rebels to the core, always ready to fight of a cause we deem honorable. Those are the values you defend through your acts; please try to understand that some other people do the same thing, even though their means might be inadequate and unjust. They are the only means for them to make themselves heard. The thousands of burning cars and the complete loss of political authority are more than simple explosions of violence—they are a symbol. Remain attentive. The future of a multicultural and antiracist France depends on that. The extreme right rhetoric is already echoing within your party. I am sure this makes you feel as sick as me.
This extract from an anonymous comment posted on the site in reaction to your letter sums up, I believe, the concerns of many French people, and mine: “…The greatness of a statesman is not to be found in his capacity to spread fear within the people for electoral reasons. The greatness of a statesman is to be found in his capacity to transcend the Nation with conviction and personal disinterestedness. Your ‘gift of the gab’ will probably enable you to gain the support of the undecided voters of April 21 [April 21 refers to the date of the first leg of the 1995 presidential elections when Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right party ‘Front National’ defeated the Socialist Lionel Jospin to go through to the second leg against Jacques Chirac, causing a massive stir on the French political scene], who have fallen prey to the politicians. Your personal interest will prevent you from transcending the Nation, (…) Until now, everything is ok, until now, everything is ok… you are topping off the opinion polls…”
To finish this letter, I would like to quote my father—a Hungarian, like your father—who fled the Russian communist regime to arrive in France, a country of refuge and birthplace of the Human Rights, in 1956. This is not philosophy, but just a piece of advice coming from a man who survived wars and revolutions: “to rise up the social scale, move up one level at a time, so that it’s not so bad when you take a spill.” This is worth pondering over.
Wishing you the best of luck for your irresistible rise to the top, I remain, dear Minister of the Interior,
To conclude: I would like to thank all of you for the interest and the passion you brought to this debate. Unfortunately, the sudden surge in comments promoting hatred or containing links to racist websites made it too difficult to control. In my opinion, the debate is not as important as the fact of raising awareness, which was my goal. This was achieved. The forum is now closed. Please use the Internet to express yourselves on your own websites, it is a fantastic means of communication and is practically free, make the most of it.
All correspondence translated from French into English. See www.mathieukassovitz.com.