Understanding the riots in France

Understanding the riots in France


Written by: Graham Murray

Excerpts from ‘France: the riots and the Republic’ an article which will be published in Race & Class, April, 2006.

It is France’s Hurricane Katrina. The recent uprising (November 2005) of disenchanted youths that swept across France left parts of the country damaged and shocked. The government saw fit to invoke a state of emergency law, allowing the imposition of curfews, and deployed thousands of police reservists and paramilitary CRS in a desperate endeavour to quell the violence. Meanwhile, the European Union has agreed a Euro 50 million aid package to help France repair the damage caused by the rebellions. But perhaps more poignantly – and this is where the Katrina analogy is apposite – the events exposed the misery of the country’s ethnic minority communities and the inherent racism that prevails throughout this land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Many Francophiles (and Francophobes for that matter) have expressed consternation and shock that the birthplace of la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme (the universal declaration of the rights of man) has become the setting of a rebellion by an underclass of have-nots.

Be warned. Members of Britain’s ethnic minority communities arriving in France should put back their watches by about thirty years. For those too young to have experienced the blatant racism of the 1970s, be prepared for a shock; for the rest, brace yourselves for some sinister reminders of the past. This is a country where a foreign name on a CV will seriously undermine your chances of getting a job; where landlords still instruct estate agents to find white tenants; where pâtissiers sell chocolate-covered cakes called tête de nègre (negro’s head) and whose inhabitants apologetically describe their poor English as petit-nègre.

Where on television virtually everyone is white – except in the many cliché-ridden documentaries about les Islamistes. And where, in the chic white Parisian arrondissements (boroughs), African and Asian women push and carry expensively dressed white infants as they accompany them to and from school.


Whether you arrive in one of the capital’s two airports or at the Eurostar terminus of Gare du Nord, you will immediately see men and women from France’s diverse ethnic minority communities. For the most part, they will be cleaning and driving and cleaning and pushing and cleaning and serving. Not that different from elsewhere perhaps; except that for the rest of your stay – particularly in the heart of the capital and, above all, if you are here on business – these people will be doing little else. Cleaning and pushing, cleaning and emptying, cleaning and digging, cleaning and carrying. If you are here on business, do not be surprised if the company you are visiting is almost exclusively white. Except for the cleaners, of course. In scenes evocative of the Ken Loach film Bread and Roses, in which foreign janitors clean the plush offices of corporate America, women and men from France’s ethnic minorities vacuum and tidy the offices and boardrooms of corporate France. And the country’s highly lauded health service is virtually held together by workers of African origin, who usually do the menial undesirable tasks that French whites refuse…

But while North Africans and blacks are allowed to do the jobs that nobody else wants to do, less laborious and better paid positions are rarely open to them. When graduates from France’s ethnic minority communities try to reach the offices and boardrooms of French companies, they find themselves trapped in something akin to those strange glass pyramids in front of the Louvre: a prism of glass ceilings where refracted colours become white. In a bid to expose the racist recruitment policies of French companies, the anti-racist organisation SOS Racisme sent two identical CVs to a range of companies. Qualifications, professional experience and knowledge – everything about the CVs – was identical except the names of the fictitious candidates; one being French and the other foreign. The outcome was sadly predictable: the lack of interest in the foreign candidate was stupefying. Not for the first time, corporate France had been exposed. Even France’s leading financial newspaper, Les Echos, recognised that ‘in order to justify their reluctance to employ youths from the suburbs, employers stigmatise their lack of qualifications. But prejudice, stereotypes and xenophobia are just as responsible.[1] ‘ It is little wonder that, while overall unemployment for French university graduates stands at 5 per cent, the figure for graduates from France’s North African communities is over 26 per cent [2]. Even President Chirac, in his address to the nation in the wake of the uprisings, was forced to acknowledge the problem of the CVs that ‘finish up in the wastepaper basket because of the name or the address of the candidate'[3].

But Chirac made no mention of the fact that France’s ethnic minorities are severely under-represented among the country’s civil servants and functionaries. And, as for ethnic minority representation in political life, it is virtually non-existent[4]. A gathering of the mayors of the Seine-Saint-Denis département (administrative area), where the uprisings began, illustrates this perfectly. After their emergency meeting about the disturbances, the municipal leaders posed for television cameras. Every single one of them was white! The country’s powerful trade unions are not much better. The very thought of a French Bill Morris, former leader of the UK’s Transport and General Workers’ Union, is surreal in a country whose syndicats are almost entirely white and, in some cases, are known to actively block the recruitment of non-whites. Even the president of France’s version of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality – la Haute Autorité de Lutte Contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité – is a white, middle-aged male. An industrialist and former chairman of Renault, Louis Schweitzer is indeed a bizarre choice to head an organisation whose mission it is to promote racial equality in the workplace. But, then again, not even token blacks exist in France!


As the recent ‘émeutes‘ (riots) have demonstrated, African and Asian communities in France have been (strategically?) housed in dreary council estates in the suburbs. And, when you talk about suburbs in France, you are not talking about sleepy leafy towns with nice parks and posh schools. With a few notable exceptions, les banlieues (suburbs) are, more often than not, dull and isolated places where unemployment can reach 40 per cent. Scattered through the towns themselves are the ubiquitous post-war apartment blocks – rather ugly edifices, whether they be council or privately owned. In the more leafy areas there are pavillons, houses owned largely by white families. And then there are the council estates. The first of these were thrown up in the 1960s to house poor whites, including les pieds-noirs, the French colonials who fled northern Africa after the Algerian War of Independence. Concrete monstrosities, sometimes stretching miles, were also erected to accommodate ‘les immigrés‘ who had been encouraged to come to France to provide urgently needed manual labour. It is on and around these council estates that the recent uprisings took place. During the disturbances, many of the French asked: ‘Why are they destroying their own neighbourhoods – their own schools and gymnasiums?’ Take a look at a map and the answer becomes clear: to target more significant symbols of the state would have meant taking a couple of buses and a commuter train in order to first reach them. Which is why, at the height of the uprisings, the police kept a close eye on all major entry points to the French capital and perhaps why some railway stations were actually closed…

Poverty and disenfranchisement

The roots of the recent uprisings in France are not dissimilar to those that sparked the events of Notting Hill (1976), Brixton (1981), Handsworth (1985) and Los Angeles (1992). The institutional racism plus police harassment minus jobs equation is certainly the same. But there are some French specificities which are difficult to ignore.

In contrast to the rebellions in Britain and the US, the recent uprisings in France were truly multi-ethnic, with North African, black and even white youths rising up as one disenfranchised underclass. While the vast majority of these youths were indeed North African and black, it was poverty and despair that united them as much as ethnicity and colour. And so determined has France been to suffocate the identity, culture and religion of its ethnic minority communities that it has inadvertently and unwittingly created communities which have become united in their misery and now in resistance. Indeed, within these communities, any potential divisions arising from ethnicity are more often than not cancelled out by shared experiences of unemployment, discrimination, police harassment, sh**** housing and no future. Having witnessed the humiliation and exploitation of their parents, many of whom lost their jobs and were unable to find new employment, North African and black youths have now come together in a shared struggle against poverty and hopelessness. And, as nobody has taken the time to listen to these youths, destroying cars, schools and shops has been the only way that they could advance this struggle.

And if the disturbances in France spread so rapidly across the country and through so many different communities, it is because the youths who rose up are as much casualties of globalisation as they are victims of state racism. Globalisation means that factories that once employed their parents are disappearing; racism means that the remaining jobs are given to whites. Indeed, if unemployment reaches 40 per cent in some of the country’s deprived suburbs, it is not unconnected to the fact that many of the factories that once required cheap foreign labour are now moving to the other side of the world in search of even cheaper foreign labour. So a Tunisian who came to France to work in the French car industry has now been thrown on the scrap heap because French industry has gone to Tunisia or Slovakia or south-east Asia. Global economic ‘realities’ mean that the factories and workshops that were previously situated in the French suburbs are scattered across the world…

That the recent uprisings were inevitable is a serious indictment of the failure of the French to tackle – indeed even to recognise the existence of – racial oppression and discrimination. Compared to Britain and the United States, the lack of progress in combating racism in France is particularly shocking. The Haute Autorité de Lutte Contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité only became operational in 2005, a quarter of a century later than the British Commission for Racial Equality…


Then there is the police. There are notorious levels of harassment and brutality; there are deaths in police custody, as elsewhere, but there is also a specifically French factor that should act as a warning to the advocates of national identity card schemes. Just as the notorious ‘sus’ laws and stop and search methods of the British police outraged Britain’s black communities in the 1980s, repetitive identity checks of France’s ethnic minority youths have only served to further alienate and antagonise the very people whose assimilation the authorities claim to desire. Verbal interaction between the police and non-white youths is often initiated by the inevitable ‘show me your papers, please’. But while ‘sus’ was eventually discredited due to the flimsy pretexts being used to apply it, an identity check is just an identity check. Another specifically French issue concerns the language employed by the police. Even the authorities are now acknowledging that the not uncommon police practice of addressing non-white youths with the condescending ‘tu‘ rather than the more respectful ‘vous‘ undermines police-community relations. And overtly racist police language is still a problem in a country which has, according to anti-racist campaigners, refused to deal with the taboo subject of police-community relations…

Secularism and Islamophobia

Some of the roots of the recent unrest in France unquestionably lie in the country’s hysterical obsession with secularism and an associated state-sanctioned Islamophobia. The separation of religion and state is one of those valeurs républicaines (Republican values) which everyone has been referring to since ‘les émeutes‘. But secularism in France seems to be going horribly wrong. Indeed, la laïcité (secularism) seems to have become a form of fundamentalism itself which discriminates against the country’s Muslims. Numerous politicians and intellectuals claim that Islam, France’s second religion, is incompatible with les valeurs républicaines. The rights and dignity of women are typically cited as examples of the incompatibility of Islam with les valeurs républicaines.

The infamous law which prevents Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in school, and the refusal of the authorities to grant the building of urgently needed mosques are tantamount to a stranglehold on French Muslims. And since Islam is both a faith and a culture, a stranglehold on the former will inevitably suffocate the latter. That this should breed resentment and discontent is hardly surprising. The stigmatisation of Islam in France means the subjugation of the vast majority of its ethnic minority communities….

… Discussions in the wake of the recent uprisings suggest that the French have still not got the message. In his reaction to the disturbances, President Chirac prioritised parental responsibility, law and order and immigration. Others on the Right have blamed polygamous and/or large Muslim families, proposing that child benefit should be withdrawn from such families, as well as from those whose children are found guilty of participating in the uprisings. And rap music is also being held responsible, with 153 members of the French parliament asking the justice minister, Pascal Clément, to consider taking legal proceedings against seven different rap groups whose lyrics are allegedly ‘anti-white’ and incite a hatred of France[5]… Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, pledged that foreigners convicted of involvement in the disturbances would be deported, a move which, according to a CSA opinion poll, was supported by 55 per cent of the French.[6] Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, pledged that foreigners convicted of involvement in the disturbances would be deported, a move which, according to a CSA opinion poll, was supported by 55 per cent of the French. Sarkozy is widely expected to run in and win France’s next presidential election in 2007, a prospect which France’s ethnic minorities will hardly relish since the interior minister has not only reiterated his provocative references to the ‘scum’ in the council estates, but has qualified his words as ‘perhaps a little weak’.[7]

Many do recognise the problems of racism, discrimination and poverty, but the language they use indicates that they are not willing to tackle them. ‘We must defend les valeurs républicaines‘, you will hear them chant. It’s a mind-numbing mantra and the more they chant it, the more hollow, demagogical and ambiguous it sounds.


[1] Les Echos (7 November 2005). [2] Cited in BBC News, ‘French Muslims face job discrimination’ (2 November 2005). [3] ‘Déclaration aux Français de Monsieur Jacques Chirac, Président de la République’ (14 November 2005). [4] There appears, for example, to have been just one black deputy in the national parliament, Kofi Yamgnane, elected for Finistère in 1997. [5] Le Monde (25 November 2005). [6] La Tribune (20 November 2005). [7] Le Monde (21 November 2005).

Related links

European Race Bulletin

Race & Class: a journal on racism, empire and globalisation

Thses are excerpts from an article which will appear in the April 2006 issue of Race & Class please email: info@irr.org.uk if you would like to be informed when this issue is published. Graham Murray formerly worked as a researcher on race and policing at the Institute of Race Relations and now lives and works in France. At the end of January the IRR's European Race Bulletin will be publishing a special issue documenting the riots, politicians' responses, community reactions and views from other countries, please email: info@irr.org.uk if you would like to be informed when this issue is published.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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