By Emma Hodson
Last summer, after a yearlong study abroad stint in Spain, I found myself concluding my time in Europe with a visit to Paris with one my best friends. As we sat at a café and people watched in typical Parisian style, I was thrilled to see my idyllic vision of France play out in front of me, when a young woman walked down the street, dressed head to toe in fashionable all-black attire, baguette in hand. “So French!” I whispered excitedly to my friend. I could not pinpoint why this girl in particular seemed an apt representation of how I imagined the country as a whole. Although at this moment study abroad haze blinded me, in more astute moments I would have conceded that the defining characteristics of French nationhood extend beyond good bread and good fashion. In fact, just across the river Seine, away from the tourists, the Eiffel Tour and the 7 Euro café au laits, lays a different scene entirely.
What you’ll find in the outskirts of Paris and many of France’s other large cities (particularly Lyon and Marseilles) are neighborhoods composed of HLMs (Habitation à Loyer Modéré), high-rise public housing complexes that are remnants of French efforts to house immigrants from their ex-colonies in the post-independence period of the 1960s and 1970s (Alba et al. 4-5). These areas are called the banlieues, or the cites, and many of them are cut off from most forms of public transportation to central areas. While banlieue directly translates to “suburb,” the word now connotes the neighborhoods that provide low-come income housing to over 6 million people (Laurence and Vaisse 35). The banlieues are hugely affected by poverty and the host of problems associated with it. Many live below the poverty line, lack hot water and do not have access to indoor bathrooms, and welfare dependency and violence riddle these communities (Laurence and Vaisse 36-37). Crippled by high unemployment rates unprecedented in the general French population, the banlieues are associated with high crime rates (Smith qtd. in Balz and Haddad 27). They are also home to a huge immigrant population, mostly from France’s ex-colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, with over 50 percent of the North African population in France residing in an HLM (Laurence and Vaisse 36). It was in the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-Sous-Bois where the infamous riots of 2005 occurred. Prompted by the death of two teenagers, many youths of immigrant descent took to the streets, causing an uproar in French discussions of immigration and integration.
Though often described as “Arabs” or “Muslims” by the media, the youth in widespread riots were in fact more often than not second or third generation immigrants, born in France, and therefore under French law considered French citizens (OECD 117). French law, whose slogan touts values of liberté, égalité, fraternité (equality, liberty, and brotherhood), contends that French institutions by nature should provide equality for all citizens. These ideals that form the idea of the “Republique” as one true and indivisible France are the foundation for the law that forbids the collection of ethnic background in French censuses, thus making second generation immigrants legally indistinguishable from native born ethnic French at age of majority (Maillard 78, OECD 160). However, it is undeniable that there are huge economic and social gaps between the French and second-generation immigrants born and raised in the school systems that as French institutions are supposed to provide them with equal opportunity. There are many ways to approach these disparities; the extreme right-wing anti-immigrant party, the Front National, call for the deportation of all African immigrants altogether, while more moderate French politicians have proposed policies that look like less targeted versions of affirmative action (Hollifield 193, OECD). However some of the most telling perspectives come from second generation immigrants themselves, who amongst a generation of rising artists, have used hip-hop as a main vehicle of opposition and a mouth-piece to express their relationship to the French state.
Though most rappers are of North African or Sub-Saharan African decent and hail from peripheral banlieues, the popularity of their music has broken those boundaries and reached the French mainstream. With hip-hop records accounting for 15-20 percent of French music sales, Time Magazine in 2000 reported France as the second biggest consumer of hip-hop after the United States (Le Quesne qtd. in Orlando 404). Despite the high consumption of hip-hop by the French public, the topics covered in many French hip-hop songs are decidedly political and outwardly express immigrant communities’ “droit à la difference,” or the right to be different (Orlando 397). A significant amount of French hip-hop addresses issues of identity and sentiments towards the French state. Lyrical content of second-generation hip-hop exposes their perspectives on their situation in France, including rejection by both the French state, conflicting ties to their African roots, French racism and the failure of the French integration system.
Anxieties of French repression of identities are common subjects for French hip-hop songs. Rapping from within a small caged space, Yazid’s 1996 music video for “Je Suis L’Arabe” (“I am the Arab”) is an apt representation of the sentiments expressed in his lyrics: an anger towards the French state for its enduring racism and feelings of oppression. His song describes how despite French attempts to “camouflage,” he still identifies as Arab, accusing them of acknowledging this fact with racial profiling and police brutality. He claims, “Even if they say that I am full citizen/ I know there will always be a border between us” (Yazid “Je Suis L’Arabe”). This implies a hypocritical French state that while trying to erase his Arab identity, does not allow him equal status in their society. His last stanza bluntly states:
Trying to change my skin would be a fiasco
But my religion is at stake, here is the drama
The country of secularism does not tolerate Islam
Unemployment devastation, we talk about immigration
And when the banlieue burns, they talk of integration (Yazid “Je Suis L’Arabe”).
Yazid criticizes the state on several accounts, first for racism, then for Islamophobia, and finally criticizing French discussions of integration while still ignoring the poverty facing the banlieues. While the title implies an ethnic identity, many of the lyrics invoke a deeper conversation about religion, and about a state that has fundamental issues with his personal identification with Islam. Yazid thus rejects French rhetoric of integration and assimilation, claiming his Arab-Muslim identity and his opposition to an oppressive and racist state.
Another hip-hop group, Sniper, which features rappers of Tunisian and Algerian origins, has produced many songs in similarly critical veins. In many of their songs, they draw comparisons between the anti-immigrant Front National and racist groups such as the KKK and Nazi Germany. Perhaps most poignant, however, are the lyrics to “Brûle” (Burn) (2007), which directly criticize French integration efforts:
Descendants of immigrants, that’s what they like to remind us all the time
It’s been 30 years since they’ve only been talking about integration
I don’t feel French
You can’t but notice that we all know
That’s not refusal; that’s just a fact
I’ve seen, I know and the gap is widening
More and more all those liars whip up a storm
About insecurity, use people’s fear of each other
They don’t hesitate to try and attract the National Front’s voters
Here I feel history is repeating itself, I can hear
Of the positive role of France at the time of the colonies
What the f**k is that bulls**t?
When our fathers were useful and productive, were they good to this country?
Okay, but when their sons call for revenge
They’re good to their homeland, France
A country governed by irresponsible people who make endless blunders.
Sniper does not hide their message: they do not feel French in a country that they feel is racist towards them despite rhetoric of integration. However, this idea is nuanced—by saying “that’s not refusal; that’s just a fact” Sniper make it clear that they do not feel French is not out of a resistance to Frenchness or a refusal to becoming “French,” but that one cannot feel French if one is not recognized and accepted as French by the French. They accuse France of having post-colonial racialized attitudes towards the second generation, who are not as economically useful to France as their laborer fathers may have been. The ideas in Sniper’s lyrics suggest that the policies enacted by the French government are a farce, and that significant change in the state of the banlieues is a myth. Racist policies and a public strongly in favor of the FN are the roots of the problem. As Sniper said of the French republican motto in their song “Faits Divers”, “Liberty, equality, brotherhood does not exist.”
Collaborative group Mafia K’1 Fry, composed of a number of members of both Sub-Saharan and North African decent, discuss similar ideas in their chilling song “Guerre” (“War”). They declare that there is war in the banlieues, and that they are at war against the French state, beginning the song by saying “We didn’t wish it, we didn’t want it/ After they pillage us France continues to humiliate us/ Racial and social discrimination, economic inequality, repression, yeah, France put pressure on us.” The song references the 2005 riots on several occasions, declaring “It’s war in our ghettos, the State neglected us/ they don’t give a sh*t about that they want to clean us out with a Kärcher.” This is in reference to President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments following the riots that he wanted to clean out the banlieues with high-pressure water hoses (called Kärchers), also referring to the banlieues as a “thugocracy.” “Guerre” is aggressive, violent, and angry, but also gets its point across: growing up in the banlieues of France, they feel purposely neglected and discriminated against by the country in which they’ve grown up. They don’t believe the French have made genuine efforts to alleviate the situation of the banlieues, signifying to them a war against the community of immigrants living there.
Though songs by Sniper and Mafia K’1 Fry provide combative lyrics, second generation immigrant youth may feel a simultaneous attachment to the French state, having been born and raised in France. French-born Algerian rapper Medine wrote about the issue in a Time Magazine article entitled “How Much More French Can I Be?” in 2005. Recalling the assimilatory actions of the first generation, he states:
But people of my generation are not shy about embracing their heritage, and, far from seeking invisibility, we’re standing up to denounce the prejudice and injustice we face. In my case, Islam is an enormous part of who I am, just as being French is. The two aren’t in opposition or even mutually exclusive. Yet when you hear the debate in France today, you’d swear they must be.
Medine calls for the closing of the gap between the banlieues and mainstream French society, an end for segregationist policies, and progress in the relationship between the French and their immigrant-origin populations. Medine reiterates: “But I was born and raised in France. I’ve been a citizen since birth. How much more French can I be?” Second-generation Maghrebi youth, based on their accounts in the popular genre of hip-hop, find flaws the integrationist efforts of the French state, which they see as disingenuous; regardless of integration policies, they are fundamentally not treated as French by French people. It is clear that the gaps seen in the employment rates and levels of educational attainment are not simply statistics but acutely lived realities in the peripheries of urban France. Second-generation hip-hop artists advocate for change, for utilizing the power of the vote to counter the power of the FN, and call for the end of oppression. Medine mentions the path towards progress, insisting that “It’s time for the French to reject those outdated labels” and that “We need to make peace with the things that make us difference.” Nonetheless, the desire to bridge this gap does not come without a bitter resentment for decades of maltreatment of immigrant populations. In consideration of the perspective of the second generation, the French state must seriously reconsider its policies and attitudes towards immigrants, the second generation, Muslims, and republican identity in order to begin employing affective integration policies.
Alba, Richard, Irène Fournier, and Roxanne Silberman. “Segmented assimilation in France? Discrimination in the labour market against the second generation.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30:1 (2007): 1-27. Web. 4 December 2012.
Balz, Michael J. and Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. “The October Riots in France: A Failed Immigration Policy or the Empire Strikes Back?” International Migration 44:2 (2006): 23-34. Web. 3 March 2013.
Laurence, Jonathan, and Vaisse, Justin. Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France. Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2006. Print.
OECD, The labour market integration of immigrants and their children in France”, in Jobs for Immigrants (Vol. 2): Labour Market Integration in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Portugal. OECD Publishing, 2008. Web. 22 November 2012.
Maillard, Dominique. “The Muslims in France and the French Model of Integration.” Mediterranean Quarterly 16:1 (2005): 62-78. Web. 23 February 2013.
Hollifield, James F. “France: Republicanism and the limits of Immigration Control.” Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective. Ed. Wayne A. Cornelius,
James F. Hollifield, Philip L. Martin and Takeyuki Tsuda. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. 182-214. Print.
Orlando, Valéria. “From Rap to Raï in the Mixing Bowl: Beur Hip-Hop Culture and Cinema in Urban France.” Journal of Popular Culture 36:3 (2003): 395-415. Web. 14 March 2013.
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