In terms of my own self-awareness as a French Ivorian, October and November 2005 were a turning point or should I say, my N**** wake-up call. Before that, I was a fourteen year old who could have been an official spokesperson for ‘French meritocracy’ I believed in it so much. My good grades and behaviour allowed me to go to a Catholic school, instead of our local middle school marred by it’s awful reputation. My goal was to get out of the banlieue (suburb) I was from. To truly become French when you’re not white, you need to be whitewashed until no one can distinguish the color of your skin.
I grew up in Argenteuil, a banlieue not too far away from Clichy-sous-Bois, where the unrest started. My hometown is a melting pot of bleak cités, (similar to British council estates), gated communities and apartment complexes.
I knew the cité I was living in wasn't that bad. After all, we only had bins torched once a year, and the occasional ‘bangers’. The elevators were often covered in urine and spit, and sometimes in tear gas, when they simply didn’t work. Many of my neighbors came from shitty families where violent outbursts would start every other day: partners and spouses, sometimes children being kicked out and then taken back. That was just ordinary. Other places had it worse, with gang rapes on the rise, as well as gun violence.
But having it slightly better didn't make it right.
And then, the unrest happened. At first, the media coverage described it as the accidental death of two teenagers - Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré - while being chased by police, but we knew there was more to the story. It triggered yet again, a fight between the ‘savages’ living in the banlieues and the brave policemen doing their jobs.
Why would they tear up their own communities? Maybe because they didn’t have one to begin with.
Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré were around my age, of Black and Arab descent just like me and many of my childhood friends. It's sad to say I wasn't surprised.
Police altercations were fairly common where I lived. We used to have a police station right around the corner. They’d do drug busts and arrest the kids standing in the cité all day long. Apart from that, they were useless.
But the fire was catching, and suddenly people were burning everything down. For some, it was because they’d had enough, while others didn't have any particularly noble reasons. Why would they tear up their own communities? Maybe because they didn’t have one to begin with. When we’re thrown away to a remote, impoverished area, not to be seen or heard, based on the colour of our skin and our social status, it’s difficult to build anything.
A state of emergency was announced and suddenly the news reports were focused on us in the banlieues. The main cause for concern was that the riots would scare tourists away. Paris, the destination of choice for millions of tourists, couldn't afford it.