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Riots and Rage

Riots and Rage

Magazine article

By: McNicoll, Tracy

Date: November 3, 2005

Source: McNicoll, Tracy. "Riots and Rage." Newsweek (November 3, 2005).

About the Author: Tracy McNicoll is a staff writer for Newsweek, one of the widest-circulating magazines in the United States. It focuses on current events around the world.


France has a history of being a reluctant destination for immigrants. It never sent massive waves of emigrants to other countries and, until the late twentieth century, never accepted massive waves of immigrants. After 1945, France began relying on migrant labor to fill gaps in the labor force. Many of these migrants were Muslims who came from former French colonies in North Africa. They were not assimilated well into French life, and their children began to protest this exclusion with riots in 2005.

In France, the ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, fraternity—still rule public policy. Race, religion, class, and color are not supposed to matter. Everyone who is a French citizen is automatically equal under French tradition and law. There is no affirmative action because ethnicity is not measured.

France established colonies in North Africa in the nineteenth century as part of its effort to maintain global strength. It lost these colonies, Morocco and Algeria, after World War II in 1945. At the same time, France needed workers and welcomed migrant laborers. According to ideals of the Revolution, these immigrants would blend seamlessly into French society. However, free movement of immigrants from Algeria gave way to attempts at migration control by the late 1960s. By the start of the twenty-first century, legal and illegal North African immigrants, mostly from Morocco, crossed into France almost daily. In France, many of the native French resented the Muslim North African immigrants. As a result, the immigrants were marginalized and excluded.

In France, moving from one socio-economic level to another is becoming ever more difficult, as the economy crumbles. It is especially hard for those with North African names. These immigrants live in the poor suburbs surrounding Paris with little hope of escape to a better life. There is twenty-four percent unemployment in Clichy-sous-Bois, one of the 300 towns and cities struck by riots in autumn 2005. The French national average is ten percent. Some of the Muslims who rioted possess good degrees from good schools but they do not have the correct skin color or the correct address to secure employment. As the rioters emphasized, France has not fulfilled the Revolutionary hopes.


Wednesday is market day in this worn-down collection of housing projects northeast of Paris. Stalls are thrown up until midafternoon on a muddy stretch of parking lot. Their yellowed tarpaulins and worn umbrellas cut a swath of faded color through gray apartment blocks strung with laundry and pocked with satellite dishes. Veiled women, palms reddened with henna, move through November damp; hawkers offer everything from sportswear to the odd djellaba robes, pomegranates to shampoo, halal rabbit to teapots. It could be any immigrant neighborhood near the French capital, but this is Clichy-sous-Bois, flashpoint for this week's spreading violence between police and mostly-Muslim residents. It could also be the burial ground for the presidential aspirations of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

On this day, the aromas of spices and North African pastries are perfuming the air. But beyond the tarpaulins there are also signs of the destruction wrought here since the last Wednesday market day. That was the day before angry youths took to the streets, burning cars and hurling projectiles at police and firefighters to protest the deaths of two neighborhood teenagers of African descent. The teens were electrocuted taking shelter in an enclosure surrounding a high-voltage electrical transformer. Residents say they were fleeing police; police insist this was not the case. The nightly violence has now spread through other similarly ghettoized suburbs that ring Paris. Dozens of police officers have been injured, hundreds of vehicles have been torched; rioters even set light to a kindergarten. President Jacques Chirac has appealed for calm and national newspapers offer five-alarm headlines like "The Republic is Catching Fire."

At the Clichy-sous-Bois market, the lot is spotted with burned-out cars. Splayed open and gray as the sky, their melted windshields collect in green lumps on sunken dashboards. This week's stalls have been built up around them. And then there's a new product being offered for sale. "I have tapes! Do you know where I can go with the tapes?" asks a man who bounds over like a long-lost friend when he realizes there's a journalist in the area. Identifying himself as Dany who lives "over there," he adds: "I have tapes of the riots. Every night. I have Oct. 28th, 29th, every night. Which do you think would be best, France 2 or France 3 or France 5?" Dany asks excitedly, rattling off the state television stations.

It is, however, going to take more than a few tapes to explain the precise dynamics behind the nightly battles of Clichy-sous-Bois. The electrocution deaths may have set the suburb ablaze, but it was a murky incident at a crowded mosque that seems to have aggravated the expanding cycle of violence. The two-story Bilal Mosque is behind the market, sharing a building with pastry and meat shops and the public bath known as a hammam. Four years after it opened, the mosque has no signs out front, but, for the faithful, it needs none. It was packed with some 700 people last Sunday night when the week's street violence drifted into its tiled prayer room on a cloud of tear gas. Worshipers fled tearful and barefoot into the night. Someone caught the pandemonium on a camera phone and put it up on the Internet.

Interior Minister Sarkozy has confirmed the type of canister lobbed at the mosque matched those issued to police in the area, but an investigation is underway to determine if it was actually fired by police. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, the clashes clearly have damaged Sarkozy's prospects in his undeclared race for the presidency against another prospective right-wing candidate, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. De Villepin has taken the lead in the government's responses after Sarkozy was lambasted throughout the crisis for his controversial street talk, labeling the protesters as "racaille," which means rabble or scum.

To the hood-wearing kids loitering in front of the mosque on market day, domestic politics and official investigations don't much matter. "Another journalist!? You're all the same, all stupid. People talk to you and you take what you want and you throw the rest away," one disillusioned young teenager tells Newsweek. Asked what they saw during the clashes, they give knowing smiles: "Nothing. Didn't see anything, didn't hear anything, nothing." Still, they stick around, and new kids materialize to join the crowd, speaking up and shushing each other at turns. "They come around here and provoke us, the police. They go like this," says the first kid, holding up his middle finger. Another brings out what he says was one of the tear gas canisters fired Sunday night: "Here. See?"

Youngsters in this neighborhood of colorless tenements—and in others like it—know that their future prospects are bleak. "I'm thirty-five and I don't have work yet," says one man waiting outside the mosque. He gestures toward a plastic document folder he hugs while he waits; the folder, ostensibly holding the map to his job search, has a little French flag on it. Like many others, he declined to be identified.

Abderrahmane Bouhout, the Bilal Mosque's president, rattles off the problems. "People here are twenty, twenty-five, thirty, and they have no work. There are no jobs, there's no housing," he says. "[The kids' deaths] were a detonator." Bouhout has filed a complaint with the government about the tear gas incident and urges patience during the inquiry, careful not to provide another spark to the neighborhood pyre.

Reluctant to point fingers at politicians, Bouhout emphasizes intercommunal harmony, applauding local Christian clergy for their friendship. He hands over two small pieces of yellow paper, five by three inches. Their messages begin "Dear Muslim friends" in French and Arabic, and wish the Muslim faithful a happy Eid al-Fitr, the feast that ends the holy month of Ramadan, above a photocopied signature of the area's Roman Catholic bishop.

Bouhout has also helped an initiative to bring a precarious calm to his own neighborhood. While riots continued in neighboring communities, with protestors chasing a television crew from their car before setting it ablaze and briefly invading a police station on the country's seventh consecutive night of disturbances, Clichy-sous-Bois's angry youth are largely staying off the streets—at least for now. The reason? Appeals for calm by fifty "big brothers," neighborhood twentysomethings who have used their street cred to soothe the situation. The mentors have succeeded where police in riot gear have failed. But their very presence is yet another sign of the alienation of immigrants in the French Republic—and the need for a longer-term solution to their problems.


In May 2006, the French National Assembly passed by 367 votes to 164, a new law that largely restricts immigration to educated and "desirable" workers. The legislation requires immigrants to learn French, respect the French way of life, and ends the old automatic right to French citizenship after ten years. It also sharply restricts the right of legal immigrants to bring family members to France to join them. Human rights groups have joined the opposition Socialist party and the Council of Christian Churches in fighting the new immigration law. They have pledged to challenge the limits on family reunions in the European Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, the anti-immigration, extreme right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen is expected to run again for the French presidency. He placed second in the 2002 elections. Unemployment remains high in the Muslim suburbs as does anger among the North Africans, complicating a possible solution to the French problem with immigration.



Cornelius, Wayne A., ed., et al. Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Derderian, Richard C. North Africans in Contemporary France: Becoming Visible. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

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