Reflections “À Chaud” on the French Suburban Crisis
Published on: Nov 28, 2005

Director of research at CNRS (CERI) and Doctor in Political Science (Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris), Catherine Wihtol de Wenden is both a political scientist and a lawyer. She has been working for twenty years on various topics relating to international migration. Her most recent book is Police et discriminations raciales: le tabou français (with S. Body-Gendrot), Paris: Les éditions de l’atelier, 2003.

The crisis of the suburbs that began on November 3, 2005, culminated in two weeks of urban violence that powerfully shook France, and forced several neighboring countries to examine the French model of integration and the factors leading to such significant social gaps (the likes of which were exposed in the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005). The violence resulted in burnt cars, vandalized police stations, shopping malls, daycare centers, schools, and public sports facilities in the northern suburbs of Paris (district 93), with a few forays into Paris (especially the third arrondissement), along with Toulouse and the suburbs of Lyon. The damages contributed to some seventy-thousand incidents of urban violence committed since January 2005.

The unexplained death of two adolescent boys at an electrical substation on October 27 in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb north of Paris, where they were hiding after they had burglarized a construction site and had been chased by the police, sparked the outrage of the suburban youth which quickly spread and attracted the attention of the highest ranks of state. Before denouncing the discriminatory actions of the police, the President of the Republic declared that the “absence of dialogue and the escalation of disrespectful behavior would lead to a dangerous situation.” The Prime Minister spoke of “events of the most serious consequence,” and subsequently cancelled an official trip to Canada, while Azouz Begag, the Minister of Equality of Opportunity and a native of a suburb of Lyon (La Duchère, where he still considers himself a local) was struck silent after having been reproached for his so-called freedom of expression.

The gravity of the crisis led politicians to examine the factors leading to the widespread unrest. Multiple hypotheses were suggested: organized gangs, deficient parenting, polygamy, manipulation by extremist Islamic groups from abroad, pessimism regarding the future, unemployment of parents, discrimination and failure in achieving equality of opportunity. Statements made during the summer by the Minister of Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, regarding “sweeping clean the suburbs with a karcher,” (allusion to a high pressure washer - ed.) and his reference to the rioting youth as “scum,” also elicited strong reactions. Yet another minister of the ruling UMP party referred to the youth as “caïds of the underground economy who seek to prevent the entrance of the Republic into their neighborhoods” (a slur referring to drug lords of North African origin – ed.).

Emergency measures were called for by the Prime Minister, including: a five-year plan for fostering social cohesion, appointing commissioners to overlook equality of opportunity, a limited state of emergency and curfew (enabled by a 1955 law adopted during the Algerian war), apprenticeships for students 14 years and older who want to leave school (has obligatory schooling until age sixteen been abandoned?), and one hundred million euros in order to finance civic associations charged with maintaining social cohesion (associations whose financing had diminished since the 1980s). The Minister of Interior announced the expulsion of convicted foreign rioters (the “double jeopardy” of expelling foreigners who have served prison time was abolished in 2002), even though the majority of the delinquents were French nationals. Debates have been revived regarding forfeiture of French citizenship despite naturalization (a measure utilized by the Vichy government), and over family reunification and polygamy (the latter banned since the 1993 Pasqua law regulating residency rules for polygamous families).

Beyond such dimensions that have attracted media attention, several concerns should be underscored:

  • Immigrant youth often mobilize in solidarity with those who have died in police-related incidents, even if the police are not directly involved as in the case of Clichy-sous-Bois. For nearly twenty-five years, the discourse of neighborhood youth and local civic associations has included claims about police discrimination, in addition to a sense that the police are not held accountable when faced with allegations of the death of a child or adolescent in a suburban housing project. The police are a daily presence in their lives, inspecting identity papers, patrolling neighborhoods, and conducting interrogations that sometimes end with hospitalization. Immigrant youth have experienced mounting exasperation with the lack of distinction made between Arabs, Muslims, and delinquents, along with a feeling of lack of equality and respect—two claims that gave birth to the 1983 “March of the Beurs,” (an historic march against racism organized by French men and women of North African origin, starting in Marseille and ending in Paris). Young police officers also lack the framework and training necessary to deal with the kinds of situations they confront. However, no public reaction has been offered in response to these questions.

  • The municipal policies launched in 1990 drew on earlier experience with social development in suburban housing projects. They emphasized the territorialization of the struggle against social inequality. Environmental rehabilitation was one of the centerpieces of this strategy (as some called it, “gilding the ghetto”), but it often came at the expense of attention to the trajectories of individuals’ daily lives. Little attention was given to the impact of existing school district boundaries, or to the targeting of spare-time and recreational activities, or to the continuing employment discrimination based on names and addresses. The most fragile inhabitants were assigned to live in housing projects, conceived as places of refuge. In practice, this meant that their scholarly, cultural, and professional futures were determined largely by the place in which they lived. In attempting to improve the image of these suburbs, the state rooted inhabitants in a space they could make into their own. But the process also isolated them in a context already plagued with high unemployment. The spiral of social marginalization was thus reinforced, combining pauperization with the ethnicisation of neighborhoods, and offering little hope of successful exit. Social integration is nonetheless the only way out of the segregated suburban ghettos, and the only possibility of social mobility and emancipation from geographic determinism. Only the delinquents confined to the public housing projects through the force of their failures dare not leave their peers behind. Instead, these peers provide a false sense of solidarity. Policies of social integration depend upon the support of public opinion, real or imagined, thereby creating a sense of crisis and superficial interest in this “disturbing” problem, without actually improving the situation of the affected population.

On the other hand, certain concerns appeared unfounded:

  • The crisis of the republican model of integration (such a model as there is—luckily local policies are more pragmatic): Just because the suburbs are burning does not mean that the diagnosis is the same for all immigrant youth. Not all are idle, tempted by the parallel (illegal - ed.) economy, radical Islam and urban delinquency. Though unknown to most, even as discrimination is rampant, social mobility and entry into middle class status (the “beurgeoisie”) is quietly occurring. The means of achieving this are not dramatic, but are a product of public schooling, free access to state-supported universities (usually outside city centers), enrollment in the army or police, participation in municipal jobs and social work, and professionalization of civic associations. These trends are shaking things up, building bridges and creating new actors. Their allegiance to France is strong, even as their integration and religious affiliation are constantly questioned.

  • The infiltration of Islam into the conflict: There is a multi-faceted relationship to Islam, which can sometimes constitute a means of daily escape. However, above all else, the crisis in the suburbs has resulted from the widespread unemployment amongst youth and parents, the sense of having been abandoned and a lack of prospects, rather than manipulation by foreign Islamic networks. Muslim organizations offered to act as mediators in the suburban projects in exchange for social peace. Even though some youth sought to bar police from entering “the occupied territories”—in reference to the Palestinians they regularly view thanks to antenna dishes covering the towers and housing blocks of the projects—it is not in the name of Allah that they have set fire to cars. Rather, they have done so in order to collectively express their resentment and frustration regarding social inequalities, their desire for dignity, and the denial of equality of rights and opportunities.

Only exit from these suburbs can offer their residents an alternative, whereas the territorialization of policies of integration has enclosed them. The ethnicisation of the debate and its displacement to a discourse about immigration (through discussion of expulsion, Islam, and polygamy) is but a diversion from the real issue at hand. Nothing has been uttered about police discrimination, or about the failings of municipal policies. For these French men and women, public policy is cruelly lacking in ambition.