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Riots in France



In October and November 2005, riots began in the northern suburbs of Paris, quickly extending to many other cities and towns. It was the worst such trouble in France since the spring of 1968. The precipitating event was the death of two adolescents, age fifteen and seventeen, on 27 October. They had fled when they believed that they were being chased by police in Clichy-sous-Bois. They tried to hide in an electric transformer and were electrocuted, with another boy seriously hurt. A town of 28,300 people, Clichy-sous-Bois is the sixth poorest commune in France. About 70 percent of the population of the notorious housing projects (cités) are Muslims, like the two boys. The incident and the events that followed must be seen in the context of the longstanding resentment of and resistance to the police among minority youth in the grim French suburbs. In all, during the two months, more than nine thousand vehicles were set ablaze, and three thousand people were arrested. Most of those rioting were young males of North African or West African extraction.

The troubles quickly spread to the suburbs of Lyon, Lille, Saint-Étienne, and Strasbourg, among other places where such reactions could be anticipated, but also, surprisingly enough, to Colmar, Clermont-Ferrand, Pau, Orléans, Dijon, and Brive-la-Gaillarde, among others. There were also incidents in Belgium and Germany. The forms of resistance in themselves were not new—the hurling of Molotov cocktails and burning of cars had marked New Year's Eve in Strasbourg for years. There had been riots on a much smaller scale in 1983, and in the town of Montbéliard in 2000. However, the geographic reach of the troubles, along with the fact that they lasted about two months, was unprecedented. In the 2005 riots, there was violence, to be sure, but it was far less random than it appeared.

Surprisingly, there was only one death—a man beaten to death while trying to put out a fire in a garbage container in Stains, a suburb of Paris—and only a few injuries. The army was never called in. Moreover, despite the fact that several attacks on schools, churches, buses, the Lyon métro, and even sporting facilities took place, damage was surprisingly limited, far less, for example, than the events of May 1968, or the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of policemen who had been filmed beating a black man. Even the mindless arson attacks on buildings were done at night, so that buildings would be empty. The destruction of empty cars, however unfortunate, did not hurt people. Despite a generalized hatred of the police, not a single policeman was killed or even seriously wounded, despite the fact that on some occasions rioters fired live rounds.

Resistance to the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité (CRS)—the militarized state security police who arrive on any scene in large, almost fortified vans—has traditionally been very strong. The government strategy of the criminalization of petty misdeeds—modeled after changes in policing in New York City ("no tolerance")—may have been counterproductive, by accentuating the enormous gulf between the young of the suburbs and French identity. The government of President Jacques Chirac had eliminated funds that had made possible "beat" policing, and thus the police became ever more isolated from such communities, particularly given increased reliance on the Brigade Anticriminalité (Anticrime Brigade, BAC). The government also had eliminated funds for a program that provided some jobs for minorities in the suburbs.


The riots quickly took on a political dimension. Nicholas Sarkozy—the minister of interior with aspirations to become president of France and a rival of Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, and himself the son of Hungarian immigrants—cynically manipulated the situation. He poured gasoline on the flames by referring to the rioters as "riff-raff," or even scum ("racaille," which can, in current parlance, also refer to a "tough guy"), and suggested that the suburbs should be disinfected "to get rid of the scum." To many, this seemed a blatant attempt to win the support of voters who support the extreme right-wing and violently anti-immigrant Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a strategy that one of Sarkozy's predecessors, Charles Pasqua, had attempted several years before. The football star Lillian Thuram denounced Sarkozy's remarks as "contemptuous and humiliating," serving to awaken "latent racism" in France. The Gaullist president Jacques Chirac vainly attempted to remain above the fray, having the 8 November declaration of a state of emergency (which imposed curfews and jail sentences and heavy fines for violators) read to journalists on his behalf. However, he appeared to be more and more ineffective, isolated, and virtually ignored.

On the right, attempts were made to blame religion for the troubles: Bernard Accoyer, parliamentary leader of the Gaullist party, the Union for a Popular Movement, claimed that polygamy among Muslims was one reason contributing to the sad situation of many families in the suburbs. Some journalists in other countries (such as the United States) also sought to place the riots in the context of fears of Islamic extremism, although religion had little to do with the events. At times, television coverage made the troubles seem worse than they were in some places.


In view of the disadvantaged situation of minorities on the edge of French urban life, it is indeed surprising that such troubles did not come long before. Unlike suburbs in the United States, many French suburbs became the residence of the poor and marginalized. Large-scale immigration to France from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, former French colonies in North Africa, and then from West Africa, began in the late 1960s. French employers, aided by the state, sought workers for expanding business. When the economic slowdown came in 1973–1974 and in subsequent years, the arrival of immigrants continued, but there were far fewer jobs awaiting them. The Muslim population of France by 2005 was estimated at about five million people. Many of them live in the suburbs, now populated by a third generation of under- or unemployed young people, a situation that has increased the inequality between two worlds.

Traditionally in France and in many other European countries suburbs had developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the residence of concentrations of poor workers on the margins of urban life, where costs were cheaper and factories were located. The tall apartment houses constructed in the late 1960s and 1970s (Habitations à Loyer Modéré, HLMs) have become identified with life in the suburbs, long after they were first applauded for providing small, basic apartments to people of modest means in such cités. Conditions in such housing projects have declined rapidly, with physical deterioration and considerable delinquency, including some drug-dealing. And because so many residents are poor, a great number of families require state assistance (generating inevitable complaints about bureaucratic red-tape and probably generating apathy as well), adding to the stigmatization of the suburbs. Moreover, continued, aggressive police intervention makes even more apparent the inability of the state to improve economic conditions on the margins of French urban life.

In 2005 the rate of unemployment in France stood at about 10 percent (three million people), but among young people it was at least 23 percent and in the suburbs much higher than that, having risen from 28 percent to 40 percent between 1990 to 2000. The unemployment rate for foreigners and French with origins in non-European countries stood about 36 percent. In Clichy-sous-Bois at the time of the riots, 80 percent of the population lived in what are classified as Zones urbaines sensibles (Sensitive urban zones), and 35 percent in public housing. The unemployment rate for young people between age eighteen and twenty-five stood at 60 percent, and about 33 percent of the population as a whole. Even those minorities with advanced education or training face discrimination as they seek jobs. Many find only jobs paying the minimum wage, eight hundred euros per month, barely enough to survive. About two-thirds of minority youth in the suburbs live in a precarious economic situation. Many depend on an informal economy. Thus, as the French economy (along with Germany, Italy, and many other European states) has struggled with a high rate of unemployment, minority populations have fared far worse than the rest of the population. A man of Arab origin put it this way: "I raise my children hiding from them the fact that I no longer have any hope for them. But the real drama is that they understand all that. They grow up in this bloody chaos, and they suffer … there is no future for the children of immigrants here."

Many of their children and grandchildren face discrimination and have little or no sense of belonging to France—although most of them are French citizens—nor do they have much connection to the countries of their parents' or grandparents' origin. Minority families pay taxes, and young men had to serve in the armed forces before conscription ended. Minority youths grow up with a sense of fundamental inequality and many do not "feel French" because the are much more likely than a nonminority French person to be stopped by the police to have their identification papers checked, stopped or even arrested for no reason, or refused entrance into a nightclub because they are Muslim. The cités of the suburbs carry with them enormous stigmatization, perceived by many people of means to be crime-ridden and dangerous.

Such young people feel part of neither culture, individualized, while influenced by, for example, some aspects of American popular culture, such as the Americanization of rap music, stressing individualism, indeed emphasizing a macho culture and in some ways perhaps even violence ("I dream of putting a bullet in the head of a cop," goes one lyric). The multicultural reality of many French suburbs contributes to individualization, undercutting positive collective responses to an adverse situation. This stands in contrast to the ghettos that exploded in violence in the United States in the 1960s, where common ethnic identity and solidarity were considerable, and accompanied, as well, the hope and changes brought by the civil rights movement.


The failure of French republican socialization has been virtually complete. This could be seen in mounting problems in the schools of the suburbs, particularly the middle schools and lycées, where teachers were increasingly demoralized by indifference and even violence. Moreover, the recent law forbidding the wearing of religious symbols in schools increased the sense of exclusion felt by Muslims because it was clearly directed against the headscarves (foulards) worn by Muslim women.

Moreover, the French Republic has refused even to acknowledge the existence of ethnic groups, for example in censuses. Thus the state does not take into account racial and ethnic categorization, which makes it difficult for any kind of researchers to study minority populations. At the same time, the minority populations, particularly the young, manifested increasing intolerance of the discrimination they faced. In some ways, the failure of a succession of governments in France has come back to haunt them. The riots were thus both an expression of anger and a cry for respect and assistance.

The government's response was to talk about the necessity of "order," but there was little talk about equality. Ironically, the state of emergency that the government declared was based on the "state of siege" law that had been imposed during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962). This fact was not lost on Arab minorities, who recognized that they were being treated in 2005 as their grandparents had been fifty years earlier.

The riots made clear the breakdown of civil society in such suburbs. Voluntary associations struggled to remain alive. Indeed the government had recently withdrawn subventions for them. The Communist Party had for decades been a significant source of solidarity for workers in the suburbs (thus, the "red belt" around Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and even the 1950s, when workers voted for Communist representatives, or deputies, and municipal governments), but the decline of the Communist Party has been precipitous. And the decline of factory production undercut class solidarity and indeed working-class culture—indeed a significant percentage of traditional French workers, who once supported the Left, came to blame immigrants for their loss of jobs and began to vote for the Front National. In any case, the unions have lost much influence in France, and particularly in places that have suffered deindustrialization. Many white workers, who lived in the same buildings as minority workers in the 1970s, began to move out in the 1980s, some taking advantage of a government program that helped them buy apartments, purchases very few minority families could afford. This is very unlike the riots in 1968, when students and workers had leaders who provided effective, vocal leadership. Thus, virtually no one spoke for the minority populations in the multicultural suburbs of Paris and other cities and towns. The influence of Harlem Désir, Socialist member of the European Parliament, is exceptional. Overall, the electoral process seemed to lead nowhere. Very few minorities had reached positions of authority or influence in government posts. No one seems to represent them.

By mid-November 2005, some state of normalcy had returned. The French government finally lifted the state of emergency in early January. The prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, restored one hundred million euros in credits that had been lopped off budgets for subventions, including to voluntary associations, and announced more job training programs, similar in some ways to those emplois jeunes (public jobs for young people) that had been implemented to provide temporary jobs to young people during the previous several years. Enormous problems remained. Funds do not exist to create enough jobs that could become permanent, and the high rate of unemployment and decades-old patterns of discrimination represent daunting challenges.

The allocation of funds to the disadvantaged suburbs will not necessarily bring about the structural changes necessary to bring hope to and integration of the excluded of the suburbs, particularly when combined with police determination to reestablish "order" at all costs. Increased penalization will only increase the sense of exclusion felt by minorities in the suburbs. Moreover, a few successes will not solve the larger problem of marginalization and the lack of acknowledgment in the public sphere of meaningful ethnic and cultural differences, and anger about the accompanying, racism, exclusion, and discrimination. Yet, for the moment, some of the people who had taken action in the suburbs even had the feeling that they had won by bringing more into public focus recognition of the problems they faced. France's lucrative tourist trade, however, hardly skipped a beat. Tourists, after all, never visit such suburbs, and the riots were far from the center of tourist Paris.

See alsoChirac, Jacques; France; Immigration and Internal Migration; Le Pen, Jean-Marie; Minority Rights.


Beaud, Stéphane, and Michel Pialoux. Violences urbaines, violence sociale: Genèse des nouvelles classes dangereuses. Paris, 2003.

Fourcault, Annie, ed. Banlieue rouge, 1920–1960: Années Thorez, années Gabin; Archétype du populaire, banc d'essai des modernités. Paris, 1992.

Merriman, John. Aux marges de la ville: Faubourgs et banlieues en France, 1815–1870. Translated by Jean-Pierre Bardos. Paris, 1994.

Wacquant, Loïc. "Red Belt, Black Belt: Racial Division, Class Inequality, and the State in the French Urban Periphery and the American Ghetto." In Urban Poverty and the Underclass: A Reader, edited by Enzo Mingione . Oxford, 1996.

——. Parias urbains, ghetto, banlieue, état. Paris, forthcoming.

John Merriman

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