Civil Unrest in the French Suburbs, November 2005

On October 27, 2005, two French youths of Malian and Tunisian descent were electrocuted as they fled the police in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Their deaths sparked nearly three weeks of rioting in 274 towns throughout the Paris region, France, and beyond (see maps, pictures, and graphs here.) The rioters, mostly unemployed teenagers from destitute suburban housing projects (the cités HLM) caused over €200 million in damage as they torched nearly 9000 cars and dozens of buildings, daycare centers, and schools. The French police arrested close to 2900 rioters; 126 police and firefighters were injured, and there was one fatality – a bystander who died after being struck by a hooded youth.

The French government’s response, if not swift, was predictable. Then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy declared a “zero tolerance” policy towards urban violence. A year later, when civil unrest again flared up in the same suburbs – on October 1, 2006 in Les Mureaux, Yvelines, again the result of an incident with the police – Sarkozy returned to the his “law and order” discourse. The government’s response in November 2005 and since was amplified by a wide range of commentary that attempted to link the rioting to illegal immigration, Muslim separatism, and polygamous practices. In fact, while most of the rioters were second generation immigrant youths, the underlying issues were far more complex, involving social and economic exclusion, racial discrimination, and most importantly the capacity of the French Republic to respond to these challenges while maintaining its distinctive model of and formal commitment to the social integration of individuals, no matter what their color or creed.

In early November 2005, the SSRC, under the direction of its president, Craig Calhoun, organized this web forum, bringing together distinguished social scientists from France and the United States to reflect on the events as they unfolded. Like many SSRC forums, the intention was to gather expert opinions “à chaud,” to bring the perspectives and knowledge of social scientists to bear on an issue of great media attention and public debate. Most of the essays were written at the height of the rioting, at the moment of their greatest extension, as the French government declared a state of emergency (November 8th). But the issues that they raise about France’s capacity to address the problem of social exclusion continue to challenge social scientists and policy-makers, and to garner the attention of the media on both sides of the Atlantic.

Shortly after the rioting had died down, after the state of emergency was lifted in January 2006, another set of protests broke out, this time in central Paris and other French cities, and now made up largely of white youths. The unrest was in response to a law – the First Employment Contract – that was perceived to compromise job security, lower wages, and the rights of French workers. Millions of people demonstrated in the streets, including two mass mobilizations of March 7th and 19th. But there was also extensive and violent rioting by youths, strikes and occupations of French universities, and levels of violence that at moments recalled the suburban unrest several months earlier. As a result of this public pressure, the government revoked its youth employment law.

Unlike its response to the youth and labor protests in spring 2006, the government has failed to take significant action to address the ever growing crisis of social exclusion and racism affecting the French suburbs. No parliamentary commission has been convoked to understand the riots, and no major governmental policies have been proposed in response to the social problems revealed by the riots. These web essays help us to understand not only the social issues underlying the civil unrest in the suburbs in November 2005, but also the inaction of the government since.

Peter Sahlins
SSRC Director of Academic Programs
October 24, 2006