Urban Unrest Unsettles France as Riots Continue to Spread

November 7, 2005

France experienced its 11th straight night of urban rioting on Sunday, Nov. 6, as disaffected youths in the suburbs of Paris and other cities staged hit and run attacks. Saturday night the troubles surfaced in Paris, as several hundred youths rioted around the Place de la Republique, setting fire to cars and looting shops. In the 11 days since the unrest began thousands of cars and busses have been burned, as well as schools, stores, warehouses and police posts. Insured losses have been estimated at over €7 million ($8.3 million) so far.

After the first nights, gangs of youths have mostly avoided direct confrontations with police, attacking soft targets, and disappearing. There also seem to be some signs of a growing backlash in the communities they come from, as people there begin to realize that they are the ones who suffer the most from the depredations.

The unrest began with an incident like many others. On October 26 three teenagers in a Paris suburb with the picturesque name of Clichy-sous-Bois (Clichy under the trees) panicked when the police arrived at the scene of a robbery. Although it’s still unclear whether they were being chased or not, the three hid in an electrical transformer with tragic results. Two were electrocuted. The third is in serious condition in a local hospital.

The incident wasn’t the first and unfortunately won’t be the last. In most cases it would have been quickly forgotten. But, as Americans may well recall, such incidents can become the spark that ignites decades of suppressed rage into a violent uprising. This time it did. The beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles set one off there, just as similar incidents 40 years ago sparked riots in Watts and elsewhere across the U.S.

It’s easy to blame the rioters, and much of the French public, along with the politicians and the media, have done so. They are the sons of North African and sub-Saharan immigrants. The majority are Muslims and, to many French people, they remain “Arabs,” even though most of them are the 2nd and 3rd generation to be born in France. A significant number are black. In other words – not your average Frenchman. They are brash; they spout obscenities; they wear “street” clothes, and they have clearly set out to attack the authorities and do as much damage as possible.

Do they have any reasons for doing so? Of course they do – as did the youths in the black ghettoes of America that have erupted in violence. About the only thing picturesque about Clichy-sous-Bois – and hundreds of similar suburban housing projects around Paris and other French cities – is its name. Towering, faceless apartment blocks, most of them built in the 60’s and 70’s, house thousands of families originally from North Africa and France’s former African colonies. The kids throwing the firebombs grew up there. Most of them left school at 16. Few have jobs. The average unemployment rate in these areas for people under 25 is 40 percent. Even though they are French citizens, a large portion of the French public thinks of them as “scum -” the term used by France’s hard line Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, to describe the rioters.

In short they have little or no stake in French society. Over the last 10 years their job prospects have decreased, as overall French unemployment rates have risen. If your name is Mamadou or Ibrahim, your chances of even getting a job interview are greatly decreased. Add to this the frequently heavy-handed police presence in the areas involved, and the apparent lack of interest on the part of the government over the last 30 years to do anything to improve matters, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a revolt.

The “logic,” if you can call it that, goes something like: “The system isn’t working, no one in power cares about us, so we’ll attack it and any symbols of it. At least we’ll get their attention, not to mention maybe a gold chain or a new cell phone, perhaps even a TV.”

Into this mix, however, one must also add a new element – militant Islam. While not all of the kids on the street are Muslim, the current conflict between the Western and the Islamic world (Iraq, Israel/Palestine, etc.) has touched their lives. A number of young men in France, as in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, have found a messianic cause to fight for and some actually have. They have come to believe that the murderous visions of a bin Laden, or other radical Muslim leaders, offer them a way to fight back at a system they see as corrupt, Godless, unjust, uncaring and at odds with their beliefs.

Religion is a potent and explosive element to add to a host of social problems. French reaction to the unrest has been a typical “carrot and stick” response. Sarkozy and the ruling UMP party have been promising to crack down hard on rioters and lawbreakers. At the same time calls go out for more economic assistance, more programs and more hands on supervision of the suburban population’s restless youth. That approach is flawed. Neither putting them in jail, nor offering them social programs will change the true believers’ basic negative view of Western society.

In order to do that you have to start with the young, and convince them that they are an integral part of French society, that they are valued and have a stake in its success. It may already be too late for many among this generation, as they have shown by their actions that they don’t feel this to be the case. Unfortunately the ossified French political system seems incapable of addressing the problem.

The far right wants to deport them (or call out the army and kill them); the right wants simply to police them. The left proposes more social programs, which, while certainly useful, appeal mainly to those who are already committed to the system. These are undoubtedly a majority among French Muslims, who number around 5 million, roughly 8 percent of the population. But it doesn’t address the real, and apparently growing, problem of those who are irrevocably outside the system.

France has in effect become a multicultural society, but its leaders continue to refuse to recognize the fact. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, the mantra of the French revolution, leaves little scope for cultural differences. The right, the left and the center, however, all continue to insist on inculcating “Frenchness,” as the only recipe for social integration. As these riots have shown, that’s no longer enough.

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