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Saint-Denis, Solidarity, and Security


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This is the second guest post by Melissa K. Byrnes, who is Associate Professor of History at Southwestern University. Her research focuses on issues of migration, French Muslims, empire, activism, and human rights. She is finishing a book on post-1945 community activism for North African rights and welfare in the suburbs of Paris and Lyon.

In my previous guest post I suggested that the long tradition of solidarity in the city of Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, was a model for how to respond to terrorist attacks like those suffered in the Paris region last Friday. In particular, I lauded the mayor of Saint-Denis for his demand that such attacks—which included suicide bombings at the Stade de France in his city—not be used as an excuse to indulge in racism or hatred.

Just hours after submitting that piece, Saint-Denis was the site of a massive police operation targeting the supposed mastermind of the Paris attacks (now confirmed dead). The raid on 48 rue de la République took place just 400 meters from the city’s town hall (in which the other inhabitants of the neighborhood were temporarily housed). French President Hollande expressed his gratitude that Mayor Didier Paillard would allow his city to be disrupted so soon after an attack on its soil. Paillard cooperated fully with the police running the raid, demonstrating his willingness to aid and support a targeted action against a known threat, even as he warned against broadly discriminatory policies and blunt racial profiling.

The distinction between targeted operations and broad-based security measures is a crucial one. The Saint-Denis I know best is the Saint-Denis of the 1950s and 60s—in other words, the Saint-Denis of the Algerian War. At that time, Mayor Auguste Gillot launched many complaints against repressive and discriminatory police and security measures, claiming that he feared for the safety of the city’s population—especially local Algerian migrants. Gillot, who had been an active member of the French Resistance during WWII, repeatedly warned against treading too far down the path towards fascism. His criticism of state policies in the Algerian War repeatedly linked the oppression of Algerian migrants to that of French citizens (particularly in the political opposition), as well as to deteriorating social and economic welfare across France.

Gillot and his supporters were particularly vocal about racial profiling tactics. Early one morning, in July 1959, police shot and killed a young man who, they claimed, “resembled an Algerian.” The local newspaper (which had strong political ties to city hall) lambasted this defense:

Let us admire the argument, ‘We thought he was an Algerian.’ French or Algerian, he was a man whose life should have been respected. Does it suffice to have lightly tanned skin and curly hair to risk being the target of a police officer…?

After the violence of 17 October 1961—when a peaceful Algerian protest was met with police beatings, mass detainment, and murder some of the local police themselves denounced the “odious acts” that targeted and assaulted Algerian residents.

Algerians were not the only ones subjected to state violence during the Algerian War. In 1961, Gillot and a few of his colleagues landed in the hospital with minor injuries inflicted by some officers during a protest against police violence. In February 1962, police killed nine French protestors in an attempt to curtail a non-violent demonstration against domestic extremism and in support of peace in Algeria. This attack on activists, mostly from unions and left-leaning (opposition) political parties, occurred at the Charonne metro station—which is just around the corner from the restaurant La Belle Équipe, where nineteen people were killed by gunmen during the attacks in Paris this November. The coincidence of geography highlights how easily anti-terrorism measures can be turned against citizens—particularly politically active ones.

Now more than ever, we should heed Gillot’s warnings about police violence, discrimination, and the ease with which a state’s harsh security measures can be turned on its own citizens. The French government has prolonged its state of emergency for an additional three months. Certainly, a measure of caution is wise in the aftermath of atrocity. Indeed, the raid in Saint-Denis days after the attacks likely ran smoother given the extraordinary measures in place. A prolongation of three months, however, starts to seem less extraordinary and more like a new normal—a terrifying proposition.

Already, the regulations have been invoked to quell protests wholly unrelated to the terrorist attacks. For the next two weeks, Paris is playing host to the UN Climate Change Conference. Conveniently, the enhanced security measures include a blanket ban on public protest. So far, state-of-emergency regulations have been invoked to place a number of climate activists under house arrest and justify the use of tear gas against an anti-global warming protest. Diffuse racial profiling also seems to be on the increase around the French capital. For example, a large and well-armed police force burst into a restaurant in the suburb of Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, but found no evidence of terrorist connections or activities.

Above all, there are important questions to raise about the effectiveness of such broad-based security measures. The city of Brussels was shut down for nearly a week. While no Paris-style attack played out, as feared, there were no key arrests made, nor was one of the remaining fugitives—a target of the Brussels operations—actually caught. In other words, an enormous lock-down, with severe restrictions on citizens’ personal liberties, did not bear meaningful results.

Likewise, structural racism and discriminatory policies can too easily backfire in matters of security. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January, the Kouachi brothers’ neighbors testified that they had known for months that the men were stockpiling weapons, but that they had been too afraid to contact the police. A legacy of poor community relations impeded information sharing that might have stopped that tragedy before it began. In contrast, neighbors and inhabitants of the building raided in Saint-Denis complied with police requirements and allowed access. Meanwhile, the individuals targeted by the police were not locals or residents, having just arrived in the neighborhood the previous night. Police had been able to track their suspects’ movements since one of them was already being surveilled in connection with a drug investigation.

Following the 18 November raid, Mayor Paillard reaffirmed the city’s commitment to tolerance and openness. He emphasized that what the attackers actually targeted was “young people who are passionate about liberties, diverse and tolerant.”

We must now unite around the democratic values that are our most precious resource.

It is our task, together, to combat division and obscurantism, to refuse hatred of the other and radicalism, to reject racism and fanaticism.

It is our task, together, to aim for more tolerance and humanity, to consolidate a fraternal and united society, to affirm the values of the Republic.

In Saint-Denis, in Paris, our best weapon in the face of atrocity is to affirm—to acclaim—liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Our only response, our only weapon, is to raise ever higher the values that unite Dionysiens and unite the French.

In Saint-Denis, in Paris, our best response to barbarity is to face up to it together.

The city of Saint-Denis is no utopia—and tolerance is not, on its own, a panacea. But it seems prudent to take the advice of two local leaders whose legacy has been a community that routinely manages such crises better than the rest of France. Isolate and subdue known threats, by all means. But let us not turn so easily against our own personal liberties in the name of safeguarding the values from which they derive.

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