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Casualties of Care Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France

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Sans-Papiers and the Context of Political Struggle

On October 27, 2005, responding to a call about a break-in, French police chased three young boys of Arab origin in the cité (housing estate) of Clichy-sous-Bois. The boys climbed the wall of a power plant in their attempt to escape the police, and two of the boys, aged fifteen and seventeen, died, while the third suffered from severe burns. Later it was recognized that the police had chased the boys by mistake and that there was no burglary. The boys had been playing soccer with their friends in the neighborhood and had dispersed to avoid the all too familiar police harassment. In response to this event, France erupted in what were called urban "riots," which lasted for over three weeks, burning ten thousand cars and causing the arrest of nearly five thousand people. This was just three days after then-interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy said that he would rid the banlieue area of Argenteuil of racaille (scum or riffraff), by which he meant youth of immigrant origin. In response to the events, the government declared a state of emergency, using a 1955 law originally passed during the war of independence in Algeria-a move that rendered all too apparent how the borders between metropole and colony had never fully disappeared, but rather had been resurrected in new ways within the metropole itself.

These so-called riots-perhaps more accurately labeled "revolts" to recognize their political nature-opened a space in France to discuss questions of economic inequality, racial discrimination, policing, and segregation for those of immigrant descent. Quite suddenly, it seemed, France's postcolonial status was no longer a public secret: it appeared in full view, in newspapers all over the world and, more importantly, in France itself. I open with this event as one of the most visible recent political eruptions in France of the tensions surrounding questions of immigration, labor, and their related colonial histories. In other words, this was not a sudden crisis; as the "banlieue film" La Haine (Hate) had already demonstrated in 1995, in its prescient fictional depiction of riots caused by police brutality against youth of immigrant origin, it is an ongoing, unresolved s