04:53:13 pmCategories: Fieldwork, Politics, Riots

TV fieldwork

Apart from a visit to the cemetery with about 50% of the French population on All Saints’ Day (La fête de la Toussaint) and a visit to the Institut du monde arabe for the exhibition L’âge d’or des sciences arabes, fieldwork the last week has mostly consisted of watching TV and reading newspapers. If it weren’t for the media, I would have no idea that the Paris region is making it to the headlines many places in the world. The media, on the other hand, is - not surprisingly - full of it.

I find the unrest spreading from the sad Clichy-sous-bois incident a complex issue to write about. Its contested meanings; its strong element of class – and half-heartedly glossed over element of what the Anglo-Saxons would call “race” –; the political rivalry; l’insécurité versus la précarité (read: right- versus left-wing rhetoric); the stereotypical scenario of police harassment and no-future young men in the Parisian banlieues (which has become such an icon of French integration problems that, for instance, quite a few people here as well as in Norway can’t get their heads around the fact that I’m doing fieldwork in Paris proper, and not some banlieue); and finally, the evocation of colonial times with the curfew. It’s all at the heart of what I’m here to find out about. So, how to start untangling it?

The media coverage was the first thing that surprised me. From when I came here I have to admit that I found French national TV rather crappy. Every possible break, even between regional and national news is filled with commercials. But the journalistic treatment of the riots has been a far cry from commercially exploitative speculation, as I see it. There have been interviews with every possible actor in the drama. One of the first I remember was the unlucky Lille-supporter finding his car reduced to smoking ashes after seeing his team beat Manchester United in a Champion’s League match in Stade de France (the grand stadium is situated next to the sad, sad, sad towerblocks in Seine Saint Denise, both can be seen from the train to Charles de Gaulle airport). His astonishing calmness caught my attention; it’s been a good day which ended badly, but luckily no one got hurt… Then the hooded rioters themselves, never very articulate, posing for the camera; nique “Sarko”… it’s for the two kids who died… la colère… les flics… - Ok, those scenes are perhaps a bit over the top. But then there are all the reportages with the grand frères and local mediators putting the not very likable kids into a bigger sociological picture; they have no other means to express their anger at the police stopping and searching them all the time, at Sarkozy who wants to “clean the banlieues with a high-pressure cleaner…” (“nettoyer au Kärcher”, an expression being repeated almost as many times as voyous and racailles the last weeks… Even the footballer and world champion Liliam Thuram appeared on TV last night and expressed his anger at this way of talking about les banlieues and its inhabitants (himself an old banlieusard)). Not to forget the endless number of young and old seemingly representative banlieusards expressing their frustration over their burnt down workplaces, shops, kindergartens, gyms and cars. (For the record; their views are varied, but of course they soon started to get tired of it all. A survey today showed that 73% of the French population are in favour of the curfew if it can return order. 89% are in favour of re-establishing local organisations helping with employment and housing issues – which make part of the long-term propositions from the Villepin government).

In addition, French media is full of long, thorough and profound analyses and discussions, from every possible angle. The discussions range from sociology and economics, to philosophy (of course, these people are French) and architecture. – Can it really be that history is missing…? Historic memories are at least evoked now with the curfew: The law dates back to l’un du pire moment de notre vie publique - one of the worst moments in French public life, the Algerian war. (That’s what I heard from the clock radio when it's work related relevance forced me to wake up this morning). So, yes, historic memories are not far away, but I think the only place I’ve heard an historic explanation is at the greengrocer’s.

The journalists’ carefulness to expose positive sides, like solidarity and creative initiatives, in the banlieues has also surprised me (though I doubt that the grocer would share my view here). For instance, the reportage of the tragic death of an elderly man a few days ago showed how the neighbours (“incidentally” of all colours and ages) came to pay their respect to the widow (white). A teenage boy of Maghrebi origin kissed her on the cheeks, an old African woman in traditional dress put her arms around her.

So, I think I’ve been a little bit surprised by the breadth, depth and serenity of the coverage. But what has surprised me the most is the patience and understanding expressed by analysts, journalists and many of the people in the streets. The economic crisis and the social problems in its wake are indeed acknowledged here. In addition, just after the riots had started I got an inkling impression that some commentators tacitly approved of the clear signs of Frenchness shown by the rioters. It’s no secret that many here seem to be proud of the French eagerness to demonstrate and revolt. Every week there are perturbations to the Parisian bus routes because of a manif for some political, economic or social cause. And of course there is always une grève going on. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if some middle-aged people – soixante-huitards to be precise – are a bit relieved and think that finally is this generation issue de l’immigration acting real French. Anyway, what is a generation of youth without their own riot? (As a friend of mine jokingly wrote me, when she heard about the contagious effects in Berlin; it wouldn’t surprise her if the ones torching the cars were in fact nostalgic middle-aged people).

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