Intelligence Brief: Riots in France

Drafted By: Dr. Federico Bordonaro

On November 9, riots erupted in Parisian suburbs and in other cities in for the thirteenth consecutive night. The Paris region, Strasbourg , Lille , Nice, Marseille, Rouen , Toulouse , Amiens , Dijon , and Le Havre all are under emergency decree. More than 6,000 cars have been torched by street gangs. Dozens of schools, community centers and shops have been burned down or severely damaged, and 1,500 people have been arrested.

The riots originated on October 27 after two youths were accidentally electrocuted when allegedly running from policemen in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois; on November 2, the riots escalated dramatically.

Such events signal a serious social crisis in and will obviously have political consequences, especially since French citizens are going to choose their new president in 2007.

The "Non-Political" Nature of the November Riots

Apart from the more or less convincing sociological and socio-economic explanations of the present crisis, some aspects determining the character of the French riots are important. It is no secret that the French suburbs involved in the riots are populated mainly by North African and African immigrants and their French-born children. The suburbs also suffer from substandard living conditions.

In light of this, ethnic identity has quickly become a central argument in attempts to understand the riots, along with social and socio-economic explanations.

In the past, and especially in the in the 1950s and 1960s, ethnic identity and social revolt have been, at times, mutually reinforcing. However, North American blacks fought for civil rights that were actually absent. Their organizations, groups, and movements were more often than not aligned with political ideas, and ideologies, that went far beyond ethnicity.

As a result, their assertiveness could be received by a large number of social actors, and connect with a wide range of political groups, from moderate liberals to radicals and communists. Supporters of black rights were active not only where blacks lived, but also in Western Europe , most of which experienced very little immigration at the time.

What is striking about today’s French riots are their "non-political" nature. That does not mean, of course, that politics do not play a role. Instead, it means that those gangs performing the violent actions do not propose anything politically subversive, nor really anything political at all. In addition, it means that the rioters will get little or no support from other French people.

In fact, the rioters do not fight for civil or human rights. They know that the French government has already given them such rights. However, they perceive such rights as purely formal and institutional, but not actual. According to some interviewed youths, the very fact to be born in a suburban area and to keep a non-European cultural identity (Islam, and Arab names) creates a specific representation of their relationship with .

The rioters argue that they feel scorned upon, and therefore react with anger and rage. They are citizens of without being part of the French national identity. On the basis of the available information, it is possible to exclude Islamism from the causes of the rioting. It’s not religious extremism, but ethnic friction which has the great effect of exacerbating social differences.

Individually, or even taken as a group, the rioters seem to be revolting against their own condition and context. They destroy their own quarters, their neighbor’s vehicle or small enterprise. Their actions look as a desperate attempt to signal their will to access the "wealthy society." Such a society may be just five underground train stops away. Still, they almost never go there. They act in their own environment, as if they were unable to move — limiting their free movement inside their own country.

The problem, therefore, is the failed integration of immigrants in the French system; indeed, the children of French immigrants do not feel "French," even though they were born in the country and are officially completely French. Instead, they are split between their parents’ or grandparents’ cultural identity and a "new," but uncertain, French one.

Without a doubt, the quantitative factor is playing a decisive role in French immigration and integration policy. Paris ‘ integration strategy and urban polity has certainly been less than successful. In the last two decades, the republican "integrationist" model has lost momentum and supporters, paving the way for a sort of "communitarian model" which has rapidly transformed into a quasi-ghettoization of immigrants. In fact, it is one task to try to integrate 700,000 people, and another task to try to do the same with seven million people. ‘s Muslim population is today around the latter figure, and few policymakers are willing to face the issue, partly out of concern with being labeled as "racist."

Nevertheless, the current rioting could be a window of opportunity for various policymakers. On the Left, the government’s difficulties could pave the way for a gain of strength, but French citizens are more likely to approve hard measures than integrationist proposals, at least in the short-term. This puts the Left in a difficult position.

A reorientation of Paris ‘ immigration policy and a decisive push toward more effective integration of today’s alienated young Muslims appear both necessary and extremely difficult. What is clear is that integration can be improved, but such an effort needs time to succeed. In the end, French policymakers badly need a new immigration strategy. The French economy and social system need the contribution of immigrants, unless a dramatic (and unlikely) reversal in demographic trends takes place in the coming years.

The Bottom Line

The French government decided to adopt a hard line against rioters, and the last surveys indicate that three out of four French citizens support the introduction of curfews in the affected suburbs. The coming days will probably be decisive to assess the efficiency of such measures. Should the move fail, the revolt could spread further and even pave the way for foreign activists with plans of terrorism (as French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy suggests).

As the 2007 general election approaches, look for immigration and integration issues to permanently take central stage in the French political debate. Depending on the chosen national policies in these fields, expect to try to influence its European partners to introduce new European legislation on immigration issues, and, if such an attempt fails, to enhance its own national program even in opposition of Brussels .

Since the French right-wing is split among many factions, be prepared for a harsh battle inside the French Right. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is probably the one who risks the most in the present phase for the simple reason of being the prime minister during this time. If the security issue does not get solved rapidly, his entire political agenda will be severely hampered and his ambitious industrial policy will be difficult to maintain.

Moreover, given the loss of momentum of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s rightist National Front, an interesting competition will take place between the neo-liberal Nicolas Sarkozy and the Catholic sovereignist leader Philippe de Villiers.

With De Villiers having already enjoyed the win against the adoption of the E.U. Constitutional Treaty — and his party "Mouvement pour la France" has rapidly gained new adherents (almost 7,000 new members in 2005) — it is likely that the sovereignist right-wingers will conquer even more visibility and influence in a fragmented political landscape. If so, then ‘s relationship with the E.U. could become more problematic.