Understanding Urban Riots in France

Jonathan Laurence and
Jonathan Laurence Former Brookings Expert
Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

December 1, 2005

When Theo Van Ghogh was murdered in Amsterdam on November 2, 2004 by Mohammed Bouyeri, an Islamist with Dutch and Moroccan citizenships, many said that this was the failure of the Dutch model of integration by tolerance. When bombs planted by young Britons of Pakistani and Jamaican descent exploded in the London subway on July 7, 2005, many said that this signified the failure of the British model of integration by multiculturalism. A month and a half later, when levees broke in New Orleans under the onslaught of hurricane Katrina and the poor, predominantly black population was trapped in the flooded city, many said that this revealed the failure of the integrating power of the “American dream.” And when riots erupted on the outskirts of major French cities (though not in Marseille, as will be seen later) in November 2005, many said that this unmasked the weakness of the French “one-law-for-all” republican model of integration.

Now, that all major models of integration are proclaimed dead, serious analysis may finally begin, because these models often hide as much as they reveal.

For example, in spite of the alleged rigidity of the “republican” model, supposed to prevent French officials from implementing any specific policies directed at immigrant populations, France has actually experimented with policies close to affirmative action. Without recognizing ethnic or religious minorities as such, ambitious social programs have been implemented in urban areas where immigrants live. Those programs, initiated in the early 1980s, included the creations of Zones of Educational Priority, known as ZEPs (Zones d’Education Prioritaire), and special tax-exempt zones (zones franches) meant to stimulate local economic activity. Those programs did in fact bring some—albeit insufficient—results. A lot of public money has been spent on rehabilitating bleak housing projects in immigrant neighborhoods under the guise of “urban policy” (politique de la ville), which could be more aptly called “suburban” (banlieues) policy. The French military has initiated several recruiting programs aimed at the young from the banlieues. Private firms and even grandes écoles (major universities), like Sciences-Po in Paris, have been reaching out to the minorities in order to diversify their workforce and student bodies.

In other words, the real problem was not the French “republican” model, which has been hailed by many immigrants and which is more flexible than generally admitted, but insufficient mobilization of the French people to make it a reality. The rioting expresses, among other things, frustration caused by the gap between the model and the reality, and a desire to see the fulfillment of the promises inherent in the model. In any case, it is difficult to imagine how the adoption of the “multicultural” model, where minorities are treated as groups endowed with separate collective “identities” and special rights, would suddenly cure such social ills as everyday discriminations, unemployment and ghettoization, which lie at the heart of the current crisis. It is worth remembering that the evolution of the “multicultural” model in the Netherlands and in Great Britain has raised some serious issues, especially after recent terrorist attacks in London. “We have allowed tolerance of diversity to harden into the effective isolation of communities,” said Trevor Phillips, the black British chairman of Great Britain’s Committee for Racial Equality. “We have made too much room for the expression of minorities’ historical identity to the detriment of their loyalty to the United Kingdom today.”i

To get a better idea of the causes of the November 2005 urban riots in France, which have claimed 200 million euros in damaged property and one death, one should try to forget about theoretical models and concentrate on specific factors that caused the eruption at this specific moment and in these specific places. Those factors includethe particular French ethnic context, economic conditions, discrimination, police violence, housing, and (bad) national policies. It should also be clear that despite the claims of many foreign commentators, religion was conspicuously absent from the mix.

Unlike its many European neighbors, France has always been a country of immigrants and has absorbed numerous waves of foreigners. In 1999 no less than 23 percent of the French population claimed foreign origin (with at least one parent or grand-parent coming from abroad). Within this group 5 percent had their roots in the sub-Saharan Africa, 22 percent in the Maghreb, and 2.4 percent in Turkey. Together, those groups represented about 30 percent of French residents of foreign descent—between 4 and 5 million people. In religious terms, today’s France has the largest Muslim and Jewish minorities in the whole Europe.

This means that the challenges of integration are much greater in France than in other European countries, especially because most immigrant workers, who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, and their families, who joined them between the 1970s and the present, come from rural areas and had little no or education. That does not mean that their are not being integrated into the French mainstream, but their integration is certainly slower and more challenging (and success stories, which are more and more frequent, generally go unreported). For example, children of immigrants do as well at school as French children from the same socio-economic group. However, since immigrants constitute a disproportionately high percentage of the lower classes, in absolute terms their children do less well than children from French families.

The French integration system from the 19th untill the 20th century rested on three pillars: school, compulsory military service, and work. French public schools in the banlieues, despite difficult conditions, are for the most part still fulfilling this task. But general military draft was abolished in the late 1990s, and the economic slow-down that started in 1973 made jobs for the new arrivals increasingly scarce. The young men and teenagers from the banlieues are rioting and burning cars largely because they have little hope of upward social mobility. Among the young men of the cités (largely immigrant housing projects in the suburbs) is as high as 40 percent.

Slow growth rate at the national level is not the only cause of unemployment among these young men—and President Jacques Chirac acknowledged as much in his November 14 speechii. Racism and discrimination are very much alive in the French society, whether in housing, in the job market, or in social life. Young men of North African origin are more likely to be unemployed than their French contemporaries with similar job trainingiii. Negative racial stereotypes lingering from the colonial or even earlier times make everyday life of persons of African origin often difficult and frustrating. The young “Beurs” (a slang word for Arabs) and “Blacks” from the cités report many cases of discrimination, such as being refused entrance to nightclubs.

Of course, such acts are illegal and they are combated by a new government agency called HALDE (Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité) with the authority to monitor and fight instances of discrimination. But less obvious forms of racial prejudice persist, and young Frenchmen of Arab origin often believe they should change their names and appearance in order to be considered fully French. The experience of exclusion and unfairness was high on the list of factors that have driven their revolt—sometimes with tacit approval of their fathers and older brothers.

Police violence and racial profiling.Among various types of discrimination suffered by the young from the banlieues one in particular stands out: racial profiling by the police. The riots started when Ziad Benna and Bouna Traore, two teenagers of Tunisian and Malian origin at Clichy-sous-Bois, died in a power substation where they were hiding from the police. Of course, the police in these neighborhoods is working under arduous conditions, but its record has been far from exemplary. Racial profiling is ubiquitous, and even older inhabitants of the cités complain about various affronts they suffer at the hand of the police.

Even worse, due to political changes introduced in 2002 by the Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, the previous government’s policies of a friendlier mode of police work, police de proximité (neighborhood policing), were scrapped. As a result, policemen go into the cités only to do the “repressive” part of their job—to impose order, investigate a crime or perform an arrest, which strains their relations with idle and disgruntled teenagers.

An aggravating factor in the life of French ethnic communities is their de facto ghettoization. Strangely enough, an important role is played by the architecture of the cités. Between the mid-1950s and the 1960s a severe housing crisis hit France. The authorities responded with a rush construction program. They built clusters of high-rise apartment houses of ten stories or more that at the time passed for the quintessence of architectural modernity. In addition, they could be built cheaply and quickly enough to provide new, permanent living quarters for the inhabitants of slums that had developed around some cities. But this seeming housing remedy soon turned into a social disaster. The bleak, unglamorous concrete-slab neighborhoods were gradually abandoned by those who could afford to leave: first, by the French blue collars and later, by more successful immigrants.

The populations that stayed behind consisted mostly of the underclass, or “losers”, creating zones of highly concentrated social pathology: school underperformance, unemployment, drug trafficking and other crime, etc. For a teenager, whatever his or her origin, to live in those pockets of poverty is a curse and a social stigma. At the same time a protective, highly territorial cité sub-culture has developed: either you belong here, it is your place and people respect you, or you are a strangers and you better keep out. That includes, of course, the police. In general, cité youngsters rarely venture far from their familiar turf. That is why rioting hardly ever spread to downtown areas, where the young people feel out of place and vulnerable.

With high unemployment, the cités are also zones of profound boredom. There is literally nothing to do there, especially when local associations and community programs are severely underfunded. No wonder that teenagers are having a great time playing Cowboys and Indians with the cops.It is like real-life Game Boy, and the media pay attention!

In other European countries similar phenomena did not develop: there are “tough” neighborhoods, but not quite as bleak as cités that seem to distill social ills, hopelessness and despair to the point of encouraging self-destructive behavior (teenagers were sometimes burning schools and sports facilities they were using themselves). The French authorities are gradually demolishing cités and replacing them with more human-scale housing projects, but the scope and the cost of this endeavor is immense, and it is going on too slowly.

Why did the riots erupt in November 2005 and not three or six or nine years before? Evidently, we are dealing with a cumulative effect, but there is more to it. After the elections of 2002 the new Jean-Pierre Raffarin government embarked on a more conservative policy and de-emphasized social programs. The so-called neighborhood policing was abandoned. Instead, Minister Sarkozy instructed the police to concentrate on providing public safety and combating crime, and not on “social work.” The Raffarin government also severely cut subsidies for community associations and local social workers despite the fact that many sociologists stressed their importance in creating a better social climate and a more nurturing environment for teenagers.

A good way to see the importance of maintaining the “social fabric” is to study the case of Marseille. Despite a large immigrant population, especially from the Maghreb (and the Comoros), and the existence of bleak cités (the quartiers Nord or “Northern quarters” as they are known in Marseille), there was very little unrest. Though no systematic comparative studies have been conducted yet, most experts say that Marseille’s relative stability results from its established social networks, smaller ethnic and economic differences between the rich downtown and the suburbs, the work performed by the community (social workers, mediators, associations, etc.), and better relations between the police and the population.

Last but not least, the one factor that was conspicuously absent was Islam. Reading some conservative American commentators one could get the impression that Paris had been overrun by hordes of radical Islamists. For example, Daniel Pipes writes in The New York Sun,iv about “the first instance of a semi-organized Muslim insurgency in Europe” and about “rioting by Muslim youth that began October 27 in France to calls of ‘Allahu Akbar’.”

Of course, many of the perpetrators of recent violence come from Muslim backgrounds—as do many of their victims. But they have no religious agenda and, even more tellingly, no political agenda: most of them are teenagers, often deprived of hopes for a good future and a good job. Many have already had their brushes with the law. Those youngsters are not likely to listen to anybody: neither to their parents, nor social workers, nor even the soccer star Zinedine Zidane, and least of all to religious authorities.

Both radical Muslim organizations, such as the Tabligh, an international proselytizing group active in France, and more moderate ones, like the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF), which issued a fatwa v condemning the riots as un-Islamic, have revealed their powerlessness and total lack of impact on the situation. Teenagers from the cités are having an exhilarating time and are not going to stop because of an order of an imam or an Islamist recruiter who wants them to lead a boring, pious life. The only real Islamist danger would be to send them to prison where they could encounter religious radicalism.

There have been problems with religious radicalism in the banlieues and among disaffected young French of Muslim background, but they are largely separate from the rioting and rampaging of November 2005. The teenagers that were burning cars were not the ones who cared for religion—even religion suffused with anti-French or anti-Western ideology. It is sad that French Muslims, who as a group had nothing to do with the riots and who according to a recent reportvi feel more and more at home in France, and are even more optimistic about France’s future than other religious groupsvii, may end up paying a disproportionate part of the bill in the form of increased suspicion from their compatriots and from the international community.

[i] As quoted by Frances Stead Sellers in the Washington Post. And by Le Monde.
[ii] Read Chirac’s November 14 speech
[iii] See:
[iv] See:
[v] See:
[vi] Sylvain Brouard and Vincent Tiberaj. Rapport au politique des Français issus de l’immigration. CEVIPOF, SCIENCES PO, Juin 2005.
[vii] See: