The Nature of the French Riots
Published on: Nov 18, 2005

Olivier Roy is research director at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research). He currently lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (IEP) in Paris. His most recent book is Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (Columbia University Press, 2004).

Intifada of the suburbs, revolt of the immigrants, youth movement, uprising of the underclass, jihad of Muslims against Europe? There have been many explanations for the riots that have struck France’s suburbs in November 2005.

1. A ghetto youth revolt

These riots came as no surprise, they have been recurrent since the early 1980’s. What is new is the extension in space and time: it is due both to the accumulation of discontent and tensions, and to the clumsy management of the crisis by the government and specifically the Minister of Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The movement is first of all a youth underclass uprising from destitute neighbourhoods. Rioters are youngsters (and males), between 12 to 25 years old; roughly half of the arrested people are under 18. The adult population keeps away from the demonstrations and shows an ambivalent attitude: in fact they are the first victims of the violence (the cars that are burning are theirs); they want security and social services to be restored. But on the other hand many resent the uneven-handedness of the police towards their kids, the merry-go-round of officials making immediately forgotten promises and the demonization of their living environment by the media.

The riots are geographically and socially very circumscribed: the suburbs, or more precisely a number of destitute neighbourhoods known as “cités” or “quartiers difficiles.” About a hundred fifty of such places were identified by the police some fifteen years ago all around France: these are precisely the spots that are burning now. In these estates, rioters operate in groups of 20 to 200, consisting of boys living in the same quarters. The bulk of the rioters are second generation migrants, but, if we consider the names of the arrested people, it is more ethnically mixed than one could have expected (beyond the second generation with a Muslim background—mainly North Africans, plus some Turks and Africans—there are also many non-Muslim Africans as well as people with French, Spanish or Portuguese names). The rioters are French citizens (only around 7% of the arrested people are foreigners, usually residents).

What coalesced the rioters is first of all a “neighbourhood identity.” They are known by the name of the estates: “Cité des 4000” at la Courneuve; “La Madeleine” at Evreux; “Val Fourré” at Mantes la Jolie; “Les Minguettes” at Vénissieux, near Lyon. Usually groups of youth stroll together in the neighbourhood streets, squares and buildings’ entrances. They “hold the wall” (an expression borrowed from the Franco-Algerian slang, “hittist,” referring to idle young males in the streets). These “bandes” or “groups” are not really gangs like Los Angeles types. They are based on neighbourhood identity and a loose affiliation with a hard core nucleus of local “caïds” or leaders; they don’t recruit beyond the neighbourhood. The hard core is often involved in drug dealing and petty delinquency. The others are often school drop-outs and unemployed youth. The whole group will join to protect the territory from intruders, whoever they are: a rival gang, police but also journalists. The suburbs have been marred by inter-“cités” feuds during the recent years (infightings between groups with knives, baseball bats and more rarely guns, resulting in around a half-dozen dead a year for all France). Many youngsters are not affiliated with these gangs, go to school, may have occasional jobs, but keep in contact and could be mobilized in case of an external threat. Many families are living on a mix of welfare and underground “business.” With broken families, early retirement, single mothers, it is often the young boys who bring in the money, from petty traffic. Fathers have lost social control because they don’t work, may be absent, or just bring in less money than the youngsters. Thus poverty should not be exaggerated: these young guys have often expensive clothing, iPods, and sometimes new cars. The street is thus more or less under the control of the youth, who settle their feuds through a “coded” violence (fist fighting followed by the mediation of local “caïds”); girls are usually excluded from the street. “Attitude,” aggressive manhood, “rites of passage” based on violence and infightings with the police are the basis of the local social order. Sometimes they make looting forays in off-limits commercial malls or even in the centers of big cities (calls for raiding the Champs-Elysées were often to be found on the web during the first week of riots).

Riots are usually triggered by an incident with the police; whoever is to be blamed, the youth accuses the police for harassment, racism and often for being directly responsible for the death of a local youngster (a typical incident is a youngster being killed while chased by the police).

One should not nevertheless exaggerate the situation: some “cités” are more mixed, with people working and many youth going to school. Socialization is not only made through the mediation of the “bandes”: social workers and associations (depending on subsidies from the government or the municipalities) do exist, as well as religious groups (usually Islamic, but some evangelicals are to be found). But there are no “community leaders,” either traditional or appointed by the community, which means that the “caïds,” often local drug-dealers, have a lot of influence.

Nevertheless there is a sense of belonging to an underclass, despised, excluded and ignored. It is a classic phenomenon in France, but also in Western Europe. The industrial working class, to whom their fathers belonged and who used to inhabit these estates, has almost disappeared. The industrial sector has been replaced by the new economy of services and Ebusiness. But that does not work very well for the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods. Poor schooling (schools do exist and are usually better funded by the government in these places, but the turnover of the teachers and the recurrent violence prevent them from being effective) but also a self fulfilling sense of exclusion prevent many of the youngsters from entering into the new economy. One should add the negative side effects of the welfare state (why look for a job if one can make enough money) and the lack of geographical mobility. They complain about racism on the job market, which is true. But beyond skin colour, there are also the stigmas of the “suburbs”: a specific slang and accent, a way to behave and to dress identify immediately a ghetto inhabitant, while somebody with the same dark skin but mastering the dominant social codes would achieve better. In fact the successful people tend to leave the neighbourhood (a move that the riots will accelerate), hardening the ghetto effect.

In these ghettos, and contrary to what is often said about multiculturalism, the youth share a common Western urban street culture. They wear expensive sneakers and track suits with designer logos. Street wear and hoods are the common fashion patterns of the youth underclass all over the West. They listen to hip-hop and rap, eat fast-food, hallal or not. They want to be part of the consumer society, even as predators.

All that might sound familiar to experts on ghettos in the USA (it is not by chance that, in French-dubbed Hollywood films, African-Americans speak with the typical French suburb accent). The suburban riots in France have more to do with the inability to cope with a ghettoized young generation underclass than with Islam.

2. Under which flag? Islam, ethnicity and politicization

The fact that a majority of the rioters have a Muslim background has raised the concern that they might rally around some sort of an Islamic green flag. But in fact, for the moment, the religious dimension is conspicuously absent from the riots. This is not a revolt of the Muslims. The riots did not extend among Muslims living outside the banlieues. It is of course obvious for the Muslim middle class: they watch with horror cars, estates and schools burning. They left the “cités” and live in mixed neighbourhoods; there is a rather high rate of intermarriages. They don’t identify with the rioters, even if they may resent in their own professional and daily life the growing islamophobia of the media and of a part of the political establishment.

But more interestingly, the tens of thousands Muslim students in the universities did not engage with the riots at all, although many of them come from the banlieues and have good reasons to feel frustrated too: their so-called “parking-universities” (where students spend years without achieving a master level) do not offer the same opportunities of upward mobility as the very French and select system of “grandes écoles” (higher schools), where they are underrepresented. Giving the French tradition of highly politicized universities, the absence of any student support for the riots clearly indicates the lack of politicization of these riots.

Conversely, the mainstream Islamic organizations, like UOIF and JMF, are recruiting more among students and middle class educated people than among the school drop-outs. In fact the more politically minded religious movements are not so well rooted in the “cités.” This does not mean that militant Islam is absent from these neighbourhoods, but it has taken other forms. Neo-fundamentalist movements are thriving in the banlieues, namely the Tabligh (a pietist and predicative organization) as well as the salafis. Both play on the deculturation of the youth, and provide a substitute religious identity, close to the model of the “born again,” which means they do not promote a return to traditional Islamic customs, but on the contrary, a “global” Islam (see my book Globalized Islam). But these groups advocate living aloof from mainstream society, and precisely reject the main motivations of the young rioters (they don’t push for full citizenship, they don’t support claims like non-discriminatory access to night-clubs and they request youth to reject Western “street culture”). In fact all the movements pushing for islamization present Islam as an alternative to the failure of the second generation Muslims; they differ in either promoting a model of integration through citizenship (UOIF) or through multi-culturalism (Tabligh: keeping aloof from mainstream society, but respecting law and order). In both cases, during the riots, they endeavoured with little success to act as mediators, and thus to gain legitimacy and respectability in the eyes of the authorities as well as the local population.

There are also some radical militants, close to Al Qaeda, who recruit for jihad and possibly terrorism. But, apart from the fact that the latter are a tiny minority, it appears that the social background of the true radicals is not the clue to their engagement (see Marc Sageman, Understanding Terrorist Networks, Penn UP, 2004).

There was nothing Islamic or Arab in the riots. Strangely enough, Palestinian or Algerian flags as well as Arafat-style keffyehs (a must in leftist demonstrations in France) have been totally absent. The “allah akbar” were shouted by the would-be mediators, not the rioters. Attacks on churches and synagogues have been almost absent.

This lack of religious dimension contrasts with the ongoing debate among the establishment in France, where Islam has systematically been the analytical grid through which the problems of the “banlieues” have been debated. In fact, in public debates, the socio-economic dimension has been ignored in favor of a purely ideological polemic. Right and Left used to complain about the supposed “communatarisation” of the banlieues (meaning that Islamic norms of behaviour are imposed through social pressure by militant groups); multi-culturalism is a bad name and seen by Left and Right as some sort of Anglo-Saxon plot to undermine the French identity1; radical imams are seen as the key actors in community buildings (while their influence on the youth is marginal). A movement called “Ni Putes ni Soumises” (Neither Whores nor Slaves) made a breakthrough from the banlieue to the establishment by defining the male domination of women in the name of Islam the central issue in the banlieues. This domination does exist, but 1) machismo is common to any ethnic ghetto, whatever the religious background, 2) girls usually express solidarity with the males in any crisis, and particularly when the police are accused of racism; in a word the “neighbourhood identity” transcends gender. The ban of the veil in schools has largely been enforced because the veil was seen as a symbol of the growing social pressure on girls (the fact that most of the veiled girls used to be among the most successful and the best integrated has been systematically dismissed.2 The debate on Islam has helped to ignore or discard the socio-economic dimension—hence the backlash of the recent riots.


1 I don’t buy multiculturalism but for another reason: there are no more “cultures” involved, only differential markers (usually religious or ethnic) used to define neo-communities.

2 This does not mean that I am in favour of wearing the veil, but even if one disagrees, one has to carefully study the fact before taking an ideological attitude.