Is France Due for Riots?


In my last post, I offered several reasons why the urban riot has gone out of style in the U.S.

However, France will not be spared the sword. I predict that the world will watch French cities light up in youth unrest in 2009, 2010 at the latest … 2011 for sure.

I have been traveling to the suburbs outside of Paris trying to understand the parallels between French marginality and U.S. urban poverty. (The “suburbs” or banlieues in France carry the opposite connotation as the U.S.: namely, predominantly nonwhite, poor, excluded from the general life of the wider society.)

I am struck at the resonances between the voices of young people in contemporary France and the cries of those who rebelled in U.S. inner cities in the 1960’s — arguably the last time we had nationwide un-civil unrest. French youth in the suburbs are mostly North African in origin — or from other parts of Francophone Africa. They are also mad as hell. Decades of poverty and social exclusion have created a growing cohort of teenagers and 20-somethings who feel no investment in their nation.

The indifference of the French government toward such frustration is truly remarkable. The state of national denial is best exemplified by the refusal of the French government to allow either private or government bodies to gather statistics based on race or ethnicity. The French tell us that in their “republic,” everyone must be content to be (simply) a “citizen”; acknowledging attributes like race or ethnicity — or religion — would affirm differences, foster inequality, and thereby lead to threats against the national ideal of a brotherhood of Frenchmen.

All fine and good. Except that in practice, people in France experience their daily lives in terms of race, gender, social class, religion, etc. (like most modern people). Though estimates vary considerably, anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of inhabitants of France are ethnic immigrants — the majority from North Africa. Yet they only have one member in the French National Assembly, they are absent from business and higher education, and they tend to live in isolated enclaves where Arabic and indigenous tongues are more common than French. (Yes, I acknowledge that the U.S. Senate now does not have an African-American member.)

It may be time for the French to shift their attitudes and acknowledge that there are multiple cultures in France. But French citizens repeatedly point to the U.S. as the primary reason why they don’t collect such statistics: they love to cite U.S. “multiculturalism” as a joke, i.e., an ideology serving to reinforce social inequality. But they love Obama. Go figure.

Now, an organized challenge to this view, by political leaders as well as immigrants, is gaining strength. There is a social movement that supports the need to legitimize collection of statistics based on ethnicity. Only by doing so, the proponents argue, can the French government begin to integrate excluded ethnic groups — a practice the French call “positive discrimination,” as opposed to our principle of “affirmative action.” Action presupposes knowledge, they argue (a central tenet of a U.S. school of philosophy: pragmatism).

Some French institutions are already moving forward on this front. The elite training school for French politicians and civil servants — Sciences Po — is at the vanguard. The university’s courageous president, Richard Descoings, has been actively recruiting French minority students; to get around racial profiling, he has creatively used “neighborhood” as a proxy.

I say “courageous” because he has been met with a popular rebuke that would make the religious right in this country look like cultural relativists/peaceniks by comparison. But he has persisted, and independent evaluations suggest Sciences Po will soon be viewed as a national leader.

The situation in the suburbs is grave, however, and the French may want to take notice before the fires erupt. Perhaps most distressing is that young people don’t see themselves as “French.” Every time I ask them “what would help you feel included: Jobs? Education?” the reply is straightforward: “I want respect; I want to be viewed as French.”

The French busily throw out a few jobs, while the young people want their dual identities — as ethnic as well as French — to be acknowledged. This is not dissimilar to the great black American social theorist W.E.B. Dubois, who argued that U.S. blacks are both “black” and “American” — even if they become president.

So, in sum, I think the French youth will riot because:

1. The rest of the country believes they are happy as kittens. (No, I’m serious.)

2. Guns, guns, guns. For the first time, I’ve heard young people in France say that guns are becoming more prevalent in their communities. Fait attention! Les gendarmes.

3. The French economy is in tatters, and the government has no money; the welfare programs in place that usually dampen working-class unrest will be scaled back precipitously in the next few years. Combine this with number one above, and feelings of abandonment by youth will be intensified by pangs of hunger. Recall that the French started a national bank (Le Caisse des Depots) to ensure that citizens had bread on their tables when the emperor grew stingy. Sometimes it may be wise to repeat history.

4. Prescription drugs: The French are mad about Prozac. I argued that self-medication will decrease the likelihood of riots in the U.S. In France, it simply amplifies the state of national denial.

5. The press. The French media love the riot. It is the only time they give black youth any attention. Young people know this.

Will gathering statistics on race/ethnicity/national origin actually help the French to prevent youth rioting? Probably not. But no one thought text messaging would be one of the keys to electing an African-American president of the United States. Wake up, France.

What steps could the government take after allowing culturally differentiated statistical research?


Predicting riots in France is like predicting rain in England - you won't have to wait long to be right.


Riots are also more likely in France because, well, it's France. I don't mean this in a demeaning fashion. Protests, riots, and strikes are just more accepted.

Also, I'm a bit unnerved by France being told what to do and think. We have many similar problems. There are like problems in Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain... and even places like India. How much government representation is there for the (former) Untouchable caste? Not migrants, perhaps, but from a certain point of view they are social immigrants only recently allowed into the greater society.

The French are particular. For better or worse, they should be allowed to be French. Leave 'em be.


throw in a national soccer team loss (or win) and you've got the perfect storm!?

JG in Brooklyn

Shouldn't that be "faites attention" or just "attention!" ?

Jota Efe

I'm not sure how long you have been working in France but I think you might need to spend a bit more time to strengthen your thesis (not that I disagree with your conclusion, just for different reasons)

No one believes the banlieusards are "happy as kittens". But few people believe there is a simple answer aside from providing them with jobs.

The core problem is not ethnicity, it's social stratification -- it is much stronger and more inelastic in France than in North America. More immigrants are in the bottom strata but so are some whites, and they are desperate as well. And it's not easy to progress up the ladder.

It's much easier to succeed if you are born to an elite family, go to a Grande École or become an énarque, and get a plum job with your parents' chums.... There is less of an "anyone can make it here" spirit. Starting a business is an administrative chore, taxes are high, regulations are byzantine. Employment practices make it impossible to lay anyone off, so few are hired in the first place. Ergo the extremely high youth (note: not just "minority") unemployment rate.

So the labour market is rigid, the social strata are fixed, and the world economy is going down the tubes. Who do you think will pay the price? Those who have nothing to start with.

I think the solution might rest less in a redefinition of the French republic and emphasis on ethnicity, and more about realising the core ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

Incidentally, the French like Obama for the same reason everyone else in the world does. Not because he is black, but because

(1) it's reassuring to have someone with a reasonable IQ and more than 2 stamps in his passport at the helm of the most powerful army in the world.

(2) it's reassuring (to the rest of the world, at least) to have someone lead that army without constantly referring to how much God loves America. I'm not sure who first thought of the separation of church and state, but here, it's pretty important.

Some refs (warning: sub required):



Une promenade dans les banlieues ne suffit pas a batir une théorie de l'intégration ! L'Angleterre a privilégié le multiculturalisme et la prise en compte des origines ethniques, on a vu avec les attentats de Londres a quoi la tolérance des fanatismes a pu la mener. Les jeunes beurs et blacks de seconde ou troisieme générations parlent francais et n'ont aucune connection avec le pays de leurs parents ou de leurs grands-parents. Les bandes ou gangs sont d'ailleurs multi-ethniques et fondées principalement sur le quartier. Le probleme de l'insertion de ces jeunes est réel et urgent mais le ramener a un probleme de culture, de religion ou d'ethnie est par trop facile...


I disagree to some extent about minorities not being in higher education. I say this from experience since a good deal of professors at my university are minorities. They do have upward mobility too since some seniors are heads of departements, etc.
But an odd thing I've noticed is that most of the minorities in higher technical education tend to be foreigners and not French of foreign origin. Maybe it's to do with their background of blue collar parents who immigrated to find work.
I've also read and observed that the French waste huge amounts of money on their social security system, especially on medicine. There also seems to be no convincing attempt to cut spending as it's such a highly inflammatory issue.

My personal opinion on the French system is that the lack of engagement and communication makes people feel alienated and mistrutful of the government. The poor and middle class usually feel that they are getting the wrong end of the stick.



There is an implicit yet serious misreading in this whole post, starting with the word "riot." We call them "manifs" (for "manifestations", demonstrations). Some are more violent than others. That's considered, in a way, a natural part of democracy. When our government isn't paying attention, or doing something we don't like, we take it to the streets.
And it works.
That's why when the "banlieues" took to the streets, I saw them half-jokingly as merely perpetuating a centuries old tradition.
As for the immigrants not being represented in politics, here's the thing: most politicians are kinda old. Younger people are not represented in politics. But as I'm typing this just before leaving the office, I can't help but notice that more than one in five employees in this IT-oriented business are minorities. And they're not janitors either. My boss's father immigrated to this country and worked as an unskilled factory worker. His son is an IT manager. In time, more of them will gain influence in politics.
As for having minorities in position of power, let me just remind you that we had a jewish prime minister in 1936 who might not even have been allowed to join many a country club in your country; and a black man was president of our Senate at a time when he wouldn't have been able to sit at the front of a bus in many US states (Gaston Monnerville).
But thank you very much for your concern.



"I've also read and observed that the French waste huge amounts of money on their social security system, especially on medicine. There also seems to be no convincing attempt to cut spending as it's such a highly inflammatory issue."

What are you talking about? We spend 30% less than the US on health care, get universal coverage without waiting lists or quotas, have one of the highest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality rate, and you call that ... waste?

What should this money be spent on instead? Invading foreign countries on made-up grounds? Sorry we don't do that anymore.


Sorry for the multiple posts, but ...

"My personal opinion on the French system is that the lack of engagement and communication makes people feel alienated and mistrutful of the government. The poor and middle class usually feel that they are getting the wrong end of the stick."

I beg your pardon, which country is it you're talking about? It's in the US that the populace distrusts the gov't. We trust our government, at least comparatively; on the other hand, we do NOT trust our politicians.


One last thing, to Sudhir:

Blacks have been a significant minority in the US for over 200 years.
North africans have only begun immigrating here significantly 50 years ago.
With this timeline in mind, I think we're doing quite a bit better integrating them than the US did.


I think it is important to point out the fact that North Africans or "magrebines" (as the French would call them) have striking differences with the "Mexicans" and "African Americans". Mexicans are catholics and come from a secular state while African Americans have achieved to win something nearly impossible to think of in France (the Presidency of course). This means that while it is culturally easier for Americans to accept Mexicans into the social structures, it is more difficult for a "Republique" to accept citizens from arab States.
On the other hand, Obama has offered the black population an "identity relief" that will probably help the country in case of economic turmoil. While the French have to account for the static mobility of their isolated "non whites"; which are by no means in the dire straits of African Americans (they still have unemployment benefits and health services) but which would like to see their "social group" going somewhere; at least in the political spectrum.



I for one would really like to see what that statistics really are. I trained in some Paris hospitals in 1990 and noticed lots of Arab-origin and black nurses and doctors and residents around. It reminded me of our hospitals. So it seemed to me that there were opportunities for the minorities if they became educated.


You should have staid a bit longer in France in order to really understand what is going on in the banlieues...

thomas Isackson

First of all, Sudhir, I've always loved your work, but I sense some post-election gloating about how America has solved all its problems with race issues. No one is perfect, especially not the French, but they know Obama's ancestors did not suffer the fate of the earlier generations of black Americans. I'm personally thrilled with the election, but wake me up when Black athletes in America are allowed to voice their opinion about national symbols without being told to go back to Africa. I digress...

Having grown up in the Parisian banlieue, I feel compelled to add my own two centimes. I agree with most of your points in this article.
I'm a french citizen, and I didn't know my compatriots held multiculturalism as a joke. I acknowledge the glass ceiling for minorities and the feudal business hiring practices, but come on.
As for that list at the end, I don't know what kind of research went into point number one, especially considering the French media (as you later point out) have consistently been painting a very pessimistic picture of the banlieues since the 1960's, at the time of the blousons noirs (same thing happened in the UK, as Monty Python's Hell's Grannies sketch seems to imply). Did absolutely nobody get the memo that the banlieues are full of hoodlums ready to wreak havoc, as you claim? Or are kittens particularly unhappy these days?
Flashback to the nineties: films like La Haine and Ma Cité Va Craquer" as well as rap bands like NTM had warned everyone about an forthcoming and violent uprising. This view is not a scoop (seriously). I had friends from the projects (idealistic and left-leaning) predicting uprisings in the banlieues and it happened to a certain extent, although it wasn't as bad as the international media put it.

Things have changed a lot since the 1960's. Guns of all kinds have indeed replaced baseball bats and bicycle chains (in major cities), but "gang members" (it's not on the scale of the Crips and Bloods) don't go on killing sprees, the guns essentially provide status (see Vincent Cassel's character in La Haine at a time when guns weren't so prevalent).
You're right about the proliferation of guns, but I don't think it's gonna be all that bad because gun control works pretty well in France, in that those guns are not carried around everyday and are kept in "planques" (hiding places) for special occasions. Petty criminals still use knives or just numbers to intimidate people.

You lost some credibility in the eyes of the French with this grammatically correct yet idiomatically wrong:
"Fais attention! Les gendarmes"
"22! v'la les flics! is the traditional and somewhat dated expression you were looking for, and in the modern banlieues, if whistling isn't enough and the "guetteurs" (in the hash trade, generally younger teens, who are on the lookout for cops) haven't done their job, then maybe someone would shout "les condés!' or "les kisdés!'' , or the vintage verlan "les keufs"!

Asking the French to revise their cultural attitudes to change their ways is like the French telling the US government to free Mumia, or to change cultural attitudes towards guns in the land of the free. It's hard to get the point across.

I know you're well-meaning, but you got to spend some more time in the banlieues (what towns, and what cités by the way?). You'll realize that rebelling against authority is what kids learn about in 4th and 5th grade when they study the period of the revolution in school so even though they don't feel French (I have the same problem, I'm half American, and was considered "métis" although I'm totally white) they do look very French to me.

I know the vague statistics caused by the French policy sound silly to you, but how do you change a cultural perception? I'm curious.

One last thing, if your aim is to give a wake up call for the French, you might want try: "Levez vous! Levez vous! Tout le monde debout" as Rockin Squat (ASSASSIN) used to say.

Another last thing: a lot of people in the banlieue dispute your theory on the grounds that it just relays the pessimism and fearmongering that comes from the media, and that it's still possible to have a nice, productive life even if you grew up in the quartiers. But those first years of unemployment after a masters' degree have indeed stoked the rage in some of the youth "sans-reperes".



On the same subject, Canada (Toronto) has lots of immigrants both first and second generation. Having lived in Chicago, Hyde Park for two years, I am always surprized at the lack of extreme poverty and marginalization among the poor here in Toronto. Although educated immigrants and lack of historical segregation play important part, but I think a lot has to do with free health care (not prescription drugs) and dependable and cheap city transit in Toronto. Both help to reduce the extent of poverty among the poor who can live in poor area with no jobs but work in parts of the city where jobs are available. Social assistance while available is not too generous and less stratification means easy mobility if one works for it. It would be nice if Sudhir makes a visit and give us his impressions.

Mike B

This is why I wanted the French to get the 2012 Olympics. Strikes combined with riots would have created a spectacle without equal and would have united the world in their mockery of the French.

I wonder if people would ever consider riot tourism. I mean aside from some game shows in Japan, where else can one throw rocks, smash things and engage in looting with a large group of people. Ever since FIFA cracked down on soccer riots just about the last place to go is the French suburbs.

Just hope the French government doesn't sweep the problem away with le bombe neutron .


The circumstances of France and US minorities have little in common.

The riots in the US are typically triggered by a single widely reported event such as the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King beating. They also tend to occur during unseasonably hot weather when the poor are edgy, outside, some drinking, and sharing complaints with neighbors.

The media often builds tension and when trouble starts they report it. And with great exaggeration.

The riots in France seem to be more from the frustration of young men who realize they may spend all of their lives doing nothing except living on social benefits in a specific suburb. And in a Muslim community with strict rules hardly well suitable to vigorous young men.

It appears the media in France avoids reporting the events as much as possible.

There is no sense telling the French to make changes that seem unwise to them. And the French authorities probably wouldn't run America real well either.



I'm not from France, but from Belgium where similarities can be drawn.

You have no idea what you're talking about.


I'm afraid your prediction comes a few years late. In case you didn't notice at the time, France did have riots in 2005 and violent protests in 2006. Next time you walk around the suburbs, make sure to bring a history book with you.