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Special Report
Last Updated: 11/17/2005
By the Fireside in Paris
Pierre Terver

Seventeen days of violence, thousands of cars and buses burnt, individuals and police targeted with firearms, firms and companies destroyed: This has not happened during riots in Bolivia or demonstrations in Lebanon, but in France. France, the country of human rights, cheese, strikes, wine and the Eiffel tower (choose your rank order) which is now facing the worse riots in 20 years. Many people are surprised, and journalists from all over the world are asking what is happening in this country whose welfare state is providing income for the jobless, as well as universal health care and free education. How can this country, so eager to give lessons internationally, know such intense social tensions?

It is important to note that these riots are not the first ones. In the early 80s and 90s, the banlieues of Lyon – les Minguettes, Vaux-en-Velin - saw similar events, based on the same model: the death of one or two young people after a chase with the police, rumours spreading rapidly and awaking the general discontentment of the district, culminating in violence and arson. However, today’s events - even if they started in Clichy-Sous-Bois – are now spreading all over France, to literally hundreds of cities, with some of them facing violence of this variety for the first time. The violence is becoming generalized, but violence against what? What are the claims?


First of all, it might be useful to explain what banlieues are. Although banlieues are literally suburbs of the city, they should rather be defined as ghettoes. This phenomenon of "ghettoisation" (in reference of the ghettos of the Second World War and those characterizing American cities) or "urban segregation"(1) encourages the emergence of systematic urban violence that affects and engages the people of the same community. It started in the 50s and was the response to the housing demands of the large wave of immigrants coming mainly from Northern and Western Africa. Huge social projects were built, concentrating up to 2,000 people in the same building. However, most of these buildings were never renovated or repaired and living conditions have declined steadily in all aspects of social life, including housing, employment, social integration.

The main issue, therefore, is one of integration. It is generally accepted that the French republican model of integration is obsolete. It no longer reflects the international environment and the state of mind of people living in or wanting to immigrate to France. Globalization has brought with it a process of resurgence of individual and community identities. When trade, politics and cultures are increasingly exchanged and mixed, individuals tend on their side to cling ever tighter to their religious, ethnical or cultural roots. In France this translates to the emergence of religious claims viz. the secular character of the republican public institutions. The well-known debate on the Muslim scarf in public schools is one illustration of the difficulties faced by the republican system. Whereas education has always been considered the main tool for social integration and social ascension, it is no longer considered as such, not only because of its reluctance to reform itself (several plans of reform have been underway for years now) but rather because it cannot, by itself, correct all social inequality and discrimination. Schools are now burning…

Poor economic performance is affecting the country the country as a whole, but the affects are especially devastating in these districts, where unemployment is generally far higher than the national average. The rate of unemployment has vacillated between 8.5 and 11 percent, with an official rate of 10.2 in April 2005.(2) With it, the proportion of long-term unemployment has also greatly increased. As emphasized by E. Durkheim, unemployment is one of the main causes of anomy(3) – the destruction of social links – putting people in difficult and precarious situations, an ideal breeding ground for insecurity. People can hardly find a job and now companies and warehouses are burning...

The housing degradation and the concentration of low income families in banlieues has now bred a general discontentment, a discontentment which was not so much expressed by the first or second generation of migrants, as by the third one, right now. Whereas the first generations tried to integrate in the republican model, young people in the following generations have dissociated from the system. They find themselves lost between the former generations still rooted to their country of origin and their actual country and nationality which struggles to integrate them as full citizens. As a result, they are not politicized and tend to direct their action against their own districts - a sign of social exclusion – to express their claims. If you consider, then, that these ghettoes are concentrating important Muslim communities in the international context of a fight against terrorism and fear of Islam, one can understand how explosive the situation is. Unemployment, housing degradation, and discrimination are the breeding ground of human insecurity.

But that raises the question, do these riots have any social claims? Are they defending a community or some ideas? Perhaps not openly so. As mentioned earlier, their violence is directed against their own communities and symbols of the republic that young people do not feel involved in. Police, schools, cars and companies representing jobs few can have: all these symbols are burning and materializing their claims. Nevertheless, in districts where a job is the most important thing, hundreds of people are loosing theirs everyday because of rioters. Entire districts are held hostage by some little warlords whose only power is to manipulate teenagers between the ages of 12 and 20. It has to be emphasized that teenagers between 12 and 16 would not be as organized and equipped without the support of elder ones taking advantage of this situation. It is not a revolt against the system, and May ’68 is not coming back. Rather it is just a combined expression of anger, irresponsibility and despair. A real despair is expressed in an uncivil and completely unconstructive way. The danger is the co-opting of these events by movements, stigmatizing these young people even more. If actors such as organized criminals or fundamentalist Muslims would decide to legitimize young people’s action, the Republic would definitely be put at stake and the spectre of civil war could appear.

This is where politics have failed. They have consciously ignored warning signs such as the previous riots, and they have stood by their position of stigmatizing the youth from the banlieues without giving the means to the rest of the population to develop their districts safely. With the Minister of Internal Affairs, M. Sarkozy - proud supporter of the zero tolerance policy and the "US political communication style" – the number of policemen has increased (even if France was already in 2002 the country in Europe with the greatest number of policemen). Speeches have been radicalized and now use slang to describe people from the ghettos ("les racailles") and quasi military language to describe the government’s actions ("opérations kärcher"). Politicians have toyed with the media without taking into consideration the reality on the ground. Meanwhile the anger grew, slowly and silently. Now people are paying the price, the same people who are the ones that suffer on a daily basis. With all these speeches on the need for firmness, it would be time to act firmly against young casseurs and support on the long term families living in these districts.

After a week of riots, the first measures have finally been taken. First, to restore public order a curfew has been established. It is a controversial but understandable measure even if the symbolism of this act is doubtful: this law from 1955 was made during the war in Algeria. Second, support for local associations will be increased in order to recover the level of the 90s and positive discrimination will be reinforced. These can be seen as a positive signs; nevertheless I do not see where real progress will be made. Indeed, it is not by going back to old principles and levels of aid that problems will be solved. A national dialogue has to be undertaken to better understand the issue. One can hope that these are just the first measures of a larger plan to rehabilitate the banlieues, however I fear that once the order restored, these districts will be forgotten once more, or at least until the the next riots.

Assisting people through the welfare state is not enough. It is necessary, but without real integration it cannot fulfil its function of social cohesion. When economic and social disparities are seen as racial or religious discrimination, the system has to be reformed to make people aware of their "belongingness" to the same political entity. The solution is not easy: Education, law enforcement, judicial and economic systems all have to be reformed. But for that, we first need a responsible and proactive political elite, the real heart of today’s politics.

(1) Bartolone, Claude. April 1999.


(3) Durkheim, Emile. 1897. Le Suicide. Extracts at

Pierre Terver holds a Master's degree in International Peace Studies from the University for Peace.