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: