Violence in France
Published on: Nov 18, 2005

Michel Wieviorka teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), in Paris. He is also the Director of CADIS (Centre d'Analyse et d'Intervention Sociologique) and of the monthly magazine "Le Monde des Débats". Co-author or editor of over 20 books, he is known as a specialist on subjects ranging from racism and multiculturalism to social movements and terrorism.

During more than two weeks, since the last days in October 2005, urban violence has developed in suburbs around Paris, and then also in other cities. Its main forms, its “repertoire,” to use Charles Tilly’s vocabulary, include setting fire to private cars, on the one hand, and targeting public institutions on the other hand—schools, for instance, and also buses (which in France are public transportation). Every night, hundreds of cars have burned and serious face-to-face conflict has occurred between young people and the police, but also firemen. The situation became so tense that the government decided, after ten days, to apply a law which had been enacted in 1955, during the Algerian war, in order to implement a curfew, mainly directed at minors.

In order to analyse this phenomenon, one must distinguish between three levels, in fact, three scales of temporality.

1. The first one is long term. As analyzed in my book, Violence en France (Paris, Seuil, 1999), this kind of urban violence has existed for at least a quarter of a century. In the late seventies, in some suburbs near Lyon for instance, young people were making the so-called “rodeos,” i.e.: they stole a car (generally, a BMW), went to their own neighbourhood, their “cité,” and drove as fast as possible, while all the inhabitants could watch them from their home, before burning the car and disappearing. Sometimes, journalists have been accused of paying them or at least encouraging them in order to bring spectacular images to their magazine or TV channel. During the eighties and nineties, there were a lot of riots, a rise in behaviours oscillating between protest and delinquency (see François Dubet, La Galère [Paris, Fayard, 1988]) with some inventions, for instance “voiture-bélier”—a car being used as a kind of huge hammer to break the windows of a shop and then rob it. There were also rising feelings of hatred among youth, as demonstrated by a movie from Kassowitz, “La haîne,” and a decline in the hope of any political possibility of action coming from these neighbourhoods. The main moment when such a hope existed was in 1983, when a big march for equality and against racism started from Marseille and Lyon and reached Paris, where some of the leaders were received by President Mitterrand. Soon after that a movement appeared, in fact more or less sponsored by the Socialist Party, called SOS-Racisme, which gained huge success, but more mediatic and political than really rooted in the “cités” and the “banlieues” (one should note that some of these “banlieues” [suburbs] are in fact located downtown, in cities for instance such as Marseille or Roubaix).

Most of the elements that led to violence twenty five years ago are the same today. There is a strong social component that includes various consequences of the economic changes that happened in the seventies: the end of classical fordist industries and forms of industrial organization, the structural unemployment that followed, mainly for unskilled workers, social exclusion, precarity—all these issues that William J. Wilson has described for the American “hyperghetto.” There is also a renewed racism. In the sixties and seventies, migrants from North Africa were usually unskilled workers who came to France alone in order to make as much money as possible and then go back to their country. They were called “travailleurs immigrés” (migrant workers), and had no particular interest in French politics. They were socially included, through work, and politically, civically and culturally excluded, for their future was abroad. At the very moment when unemployment and crisis in classical industries started, measures were taken by the government in order to make possible “family regrouping”—see Patrick Weil for instance (La France et ses étrangers, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1991)—and most of these workers chose to stay in France, to have their family and life in this country. Their grandchildren became more or less the contrary of what they were: socially excluded (for they are the first not to find jobs) and politically, civically and culturally included—they are supposed to be or become French. But racism in France is rather strong, as I analysed in La France raciste (Paris, Seuil, 1991)—a “symbolic racism,” to use the American categories of some political psychologists—and they face huge difficulties in getting access to jobs, or to housing, or in their interactions with police.

It is also in the mid-seventies that French republican institutions entered into a process of decline, in spite of the incantatory discourse of some intellectuals, such as Régis Debray or Alain Finkielkraut, who defended strongly their conception of the republican idea—no minority in the public sphere, and a hardliner defence of “laïcité” (a word that cannot be translated into English—let us say: separation of the State and the Churches). The public services, the police, the institutions of justice, and also especially the public schools have been facing huge difficulties: they cannot fulfill anymore, at least for the young migrants, the wonderful republican promise that is summarized in the motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” This created a lot of frustrations, and this is unique in Europe, where many migrants endure the same social difficulties, but not the ones related to the fact that the State and its intellectuals promise so much and do not keep their word.

Another aspect in this general crisis is that it is connected with a kind of ethnicization, with the rise of cultural, national, regional or religious identities that seek recognition in the public sphere, which is not easy in the French system, dominated by the republican idea and by the notion that the Nation has a theoretical monopoly as far as collective identity is concerned. As I argued with some colleagues in an edited volume (Une société fragmentée? La Découverte, 1996), and in my book La Différence (new ed., les Editions de l’Aube, 2005), this is a huge challenge, including issues such as memory, or the competition between victims. Islam is at the core of this challenge. In the poor neighbourhoods, imams are now sometimes the only actors, and at the same time, Muslims have to face a strong islamophobia, rooted in a long history where the French stopped the Arabs in Poitiers in 732, had a crucial role in the Crusades, then colonized North Africa, etc.

Another dimension must be taken into consideration: the decomposition, in many of these popular neighbourhoods, of any capacity to transform social and cultural demands into political action, the decline of most political mediations, the more spectacular being the disappearance of the Communist party, and of a lot of grassroots associations, sometimes connected with larger, national organizations.

2. A second scale of temporality is shorter. It has to do with the last three and a half years. During the seventies, eighties, nineties and early years of this century, all governments tried to implement specific policies in order to solve the urban crisis. They created, for instance, as early as 1982, a kind of French version of affirmative action, with the ZEP (Zones d’Education Prioritaires), which means that additional resources are given by the State to some public schools that are located in popular neighbourhoods in order to give their pupils the same chances to succeed as others. But most analysts and political leaders admit that what was done was not enough, and strong feelings of failure dominate the opinions on these policies. When President Chirac was elected again, in 2002, with a solid majority in the Parliament, the Government decided if not to make an end to all policy in this area, at least to undo most of what existed, and before all what had been implemented by the Socialist Government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from 1997 to 2002. They ended the so called “police de proximité” (one could translate: community police), they terminated the “emplois-jeunes” (public jobs for young people) and they drastically reduced subsidies to the associations that organize social work or various kinds of activities (sport, culture, music, etc.) in these popular places. Suddenly, the minimum measures that may have saved these areas from drowning were suppressed; and when the government understood it, in 2004, it was too late.

3. A third scale of temporality is given by the present situation. In fact, two main events contributed to setting off the riots. On the one hand, the death of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois (near Paris), who were certain that the police were running after them, which was not the case, and were panic stricken, so that they hid in an electric transformer where they were electrocuted. This was perceived as a huge injustice. In France (but one could compare for instance to Los Angeles in 1992) riots very often start with the news or the rumor of a police or justice misconduct, and this has been no doubt the starting point. A second element was also important: the vocabulary used by Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of Interior, speaking of “racaille” (scum) and promising to clean popular areas from delinquency with a Karcher (high pressure cleaner-ed). These expressions, that are highly appreciated by the right and the extreme right, were perceived by the youth in these neighbourhoods as disqualifying all of them, and not only some delinquents.

What happened included new aspects that didn’t exist in previous riots. In the past, they were local, and didn’t extend from one city to another. They were also limited in time, no more than two or three nights. Today, they expand at the national scale—and some observers consider it could become a European phenomenon (an idea which I don’t share because there is at least a unique dimension in France: the importance of the frustrations towards the State and the Republican promises). The rioters are young, sometimes very young, and if most of them are children of migrants, what is new is the importance of sub-Saharan African origins among them. The population from sub-Saharan Africa is more recent, and the children are less educated than the ones from Maghreb. Another aspect in these riots is that they are not at all organized, they produce no discourse, they don’t have any leader, any principle of structuration, they are typically crisis behaviours, and not at all a movement. From this point of view, they are the very contrary to May 68, as analysed for instance by Alain Touraine, speaking of a new social movement, or Claude Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis and Edgar Morin, speaking of a cultural one. They express, they condense a lot of issues, but are not political. This does not mean they lack rationality. The young rioters, for instance, are violent but they are rather careful with ordinary people. They burn cars or buses, they fight with the police, but they don’t attack people. They have an impressive capacity in meeting somewhere very quickly and disappearing as quickly, with the use of mobile phones much more than internet. They are part of the contemporary culture.

An important point must be underlined. Contrary to what has been sometimes said, radical Islam has nothing to do with these riots. There are no religious dimensions in the violence, which is first of all social. But Islam is present in the situation: in many cases, local imams or national Muslim leaders appeared as preaching peace, asking the youth not to use violence. If there is a problem, it is not Islamic violence, but the fact that the French Republic is resting on the capacity of religious leaders to organize the peace and social calm in popular areas. This leads us to examine the idea of a decline of the French republican model.

4. This violence means much more than a limited crisis. It is one expression, among others, of the decline, and maybe the collapse, of the French model of integration. This model is exploding, in all its dimensions. Today, France is facing a general challenge, a total crisis where the social, the institutional, the political and the cultural elements each call for huge changes, and where they don’t seem to be conciliated, as was the case when industrial society, State institutions and the Nation as a collective identity were in a direct correspondence. The French model is so deeply damaged that in order to finish with the riots, the Government not only relied exclusively on police forces, but also behaved as in times of war, with the curfew. The political challenge is clear: when this violence ends—which all political actors and, in general, the population hope—how will it be possible to return from military or police policies, to social ones in order to deal with all the issues that the violence condenses?

A limited answer, as the one proposed by the prime minister to increase some social measures (for instance, subsidies to associations specialized in social work), is not enough. What is at stake is the capacity of French political parties, and maybe intellectuals, to reinvent a formula combining the social and the economic, articulating solidarity, the Welfare State, a new system of redistribution, but also a renewal in institutions, a more opened policy towards minorities and cultural identities, a stronger stand against racism and discrimination, on the one hand, and on the other, economic rationality and efficacy, which means acceptance of participation in globalization processes and not attitudes of withdrawal, whether their meaning be in the name of the Nation, in order to try and save the old and collapsing social model, or to defend a too retracted notion of the Republic.

On the right side of the political spectrum, two main discourses dominate. On the one hand, Nicolas Sarkozy defends an original formula, combining economic liberalism, the idea that police are at the front line before any social treatment of the crisis, and some opening to religious Muslim leaders who are supposed to ensure calm in popular areas. And on the other hand, Dominique de Villepin, as Chirac’s political child, proposes to defend the social and republican model, but doesn’t seem willing or able to introduce important reforms. Should we expect more from the left? Today, the Socialist Party is preoccupied much more by deciding who will be their presidential candidate than by anything else. And it is very difficult for them to speak clearly and loudly, because they don’t want to oppose public opinion and criticize any serious effort to end the violence, which means police, though they consider social and preventive actions a priority. This is not very encouraging, and this is why the National Front is so popular in recent surveys.