Stella Hughes reports on the unpleasant experiences of an academic who chose to study French skinheads.
French skinheads came under the spotlight last month when a young Moroccan strolling along the banks of the Seine was assaulted and drowned by a gang who had broken off from a National Front march.
As it turned out, the youth who finally admitted to hitting Brahim Bouarram was just days out of the army and not himself a skinhead. But the existence of skinheads as a racist subculture and their inevitable appearance at National Front rallies became a major talking point in France.
Angelina Peralva, a Brazilian sociologist who divides her time between Sao Paolo University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, found herself giving a stream of interviews as the specialist on French skinheads. Her research on a group of Paris skinheads, carried out in 1990-91, was part of a project with Michel Wieviorka, head of CADIS, the Centre d'Analyse et d'Intervention Sociologiques. The result - a book called La France Raciste - sold so well that it went into paperback.
But it is not an experience which Peralva wants to repeat. "It was the most distressing research I have ever undertaken and when an opportunity to pursue it further arose, I couldn't face it,'' she said.
As a seasoned specialist in juvenile violence, Peralva is no stranger to distressing case studies. What made the work on skinheads so testing, she says, was the mixture of repulsion their ideology aroused and an intense awareness of the pain, fear and hatred which filled them.
In the study of skinheads, the first task was to find some. Confronted by a systematically repressive police policy, French skins tend to keep a low profile when going about their daily lives. Few thriving youth subcultures have ever broken through in French society and French skins, who number fewer than 1,000, do not have their own music, concerts or bars.
Peralva and two research assistants began to "hang out'' in likely venues, going to rock concerts or to locations known to be far-right meeting places.
Finally, contact was made with a youth at a skin fashion boutique called, significantly enough, London Style on the Left Bank of Paris.
"At the time, there was one particular youth, known as Batskin, who was always in the media and we wanted to avoid him,'' said Peralva. The team wanted to understand grass-roots racism in the 1990s. The youth took her card. A few days later, she got a call from Batskin. "It was typical of the strictly hierarchical structure of the skinheads,'' she commented. "Even though the youth I spoke to had little personal contact with Batskin, he went straight to him.'' Batskin and some 15 other skinheads fell in readily with the research project and its aim of understanding racism, attracted by the new opportunity for public exposure which it offered. The skinheads despised journalists and the type of media coverage their movement was given - in several cases, once with a British quality paper during the research project, the media insisted that the skinheads stage an attack as a photo opportunity.
"They were interested in the book because it was a different way to gain access to the public than that offered by the press,'' said Peralva. "They were extremely concerned to project the image of an emergent political movement''.
The skinheads were told that the researchers wanted them to debate their ideas as a group with a series of people from various walks of life whom they were interested in confronting. They chose an MP from the then governing Socialist Party, a police commissioner, an activist from an environmental movement, a teacher and a historian specialising in the extreme right.
"That part of the project was disappointing. We wanted to see if their ideological discourse would break down in these debates, but they did not budge an inch,'' recalled Peralva.
Batskin, an articulate and aggressive student studying history at Jussieu University, dominated the proceedings. The others were either entirely inarticulate or supported their leader. Then followed months of individual interviews, going over the same ground without the group pressure.
The picture which emerged was a very different one to that portrayed in Mike Brake's 1974 The Skinheads: An English Working Class Subculture.
The group of French skinheads came from far more varied backgrounds. The most widely shared factor was membership of a family which had sunk socially and economically, shattering family relationships and social roots. "Their fathers had been in the army, in business, in engineering before ending up on housing estates after a dismissal, bankruptcy and so forth,'' explained Peralva. "The family situations were always extremely difficult, a sister on hard drugs, a brother in jail.'' All had initially been attracted to extreme right politics and had ended up in the skin movement out of dissatisfaction with the National Front and its search for respectability. Although they remained regular attenders of NF events or worked for it as security guards, they were disappointed with its stated rejection of violence.
"Extreme right, racist, anti-Semitic ideology was the one thing which gave meaning to their existence,'' noted Peralva, "but they were not supported by a real subculture they could live in''. "By the end of the project, I sensed a deep fatigue --they were trying to keep their faith in the emergence of a real skinhead movement, but were worn down by their constant run-ins with the police.''
The group gathered a last time to hear the researchers' analysis and gave it their seal of approval because it emphasised their commitment to far right politics.
Peralva says she noticed an improvement in the media coverage of the May Day drowning and the skinhead movement. "It was more mature and made an attempt to understand the phenomenon, instead of hyping up the violence and leaving it at that'', she pointed out.