Can a New Generation in the Banlieues Change French Politics?

On Feb. 2, around a quarter to 5 in the afternoon, just as the day began to darken, police officers approached four young men outside a recording studio in the Rose des Vents, an agglomeration of chalky cités, or public-housing projects, that covers a remote expanse of the northeast Paris suburb Aulnay-sous-Bois. The police asked to see one man’s identity papers. Within minutes, another was on his stomach. The officers put handcuffs on the 21-year-old, whose family, of Congolese origin, lived nearby. When they arrived at the station, staff members noticed that he was in a lot of pain. He was rushed to a hospital, where an examination revealed a 10-centimeter tear in his rectum. It had been caused by a police baton.

Nine days later, 3,000 people gathered in the muddy yard in front of the courthouse that serves the “93” — the department to the north and east of Paris that includes Aulnay. Most of the protesters were in their 20s, first- or second-generation French, their parents or grandparents having arrived from Morocco or Mali or Algeria in the 1960s and ’70s. Among them was Mehdi Bouteghmès, a 28-year-old city counselor in the neighboring suburb La Courneuve. When news of the incident first spread on social media, where the campaign for the presidential election was also heating up, Bouteghmès took to Facebook. “In my vision of the Republic, the election campaign should come to a halt,” he wrote. “All the candidates should focus on and make a priority of resolving the problem of the role of the police in this country.” Then he posted the opening lines of “What Is the Third Estate?” a tract published by the Abbé Sieyès in January 1789, that took up the cause of the common classes: “We have three questions before us. One — What is the Third Estate? EVERYTHING. Two — What has it been until now in the political order? NOTHING. Three — What is it asking for? TO BE SOMETHING.”

The election campaign did not stop; instead Bouteghmès found himself here, surrounded by the citizens he represented. A handful of gendarmes loitered on a steel walkway that ran above the complex, peering down at the crowd. A dozen young men hoisted themselves onto a parapet, fists raised. “We’re finished with this savagery,” one shouted into a microphone. “With this violence that’s been going on for 30 years. Today you can kill an African, rape an African. Some of you experience daily humiliations. It’s a myth, the country of the rights of man. Do you feel like the country respects you?” The crowd yelled back: “No!”

The protesters began to sing “The Marseillaise.” Someone set off a mortar that burst red into the sky with a pop like gunfire, close enough to shed ash on the crowd. A humming sound floated up from behind. Everyone turned to watch a group of kids rush up the steps of the walkway toward the gendarmes, hurling stones at their riot shields until the officers charged, forcing them back down. A truck belonging to the radio station RTL went up in flames, sending a dark column of smoke skyward. Police reinforcements arrived and set off tear-gas, pushing the crowd out of the courtyard, into the surrounding streets and down into the metro station.

Read more at The New York Times Magazine.