The French Riots: Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose

News Abroad

Mr. Erlich is an M.A. Candidate, Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

The current spate of rioting in France needs to be understood in a historical context. The English-language media has explained the recent paroxysms of violence in France as a singular event, with no precedent, the recent sign that attempted policies have failed. This speaks to the institutional amnesia that all Western societies share when remembering violence. In the United States, the herds of interns and young Capitol Hill staffers that flit through the city have no idea that 1,200 buildings and 900 businesses burned in the District in 1968 in rioting that occurred after the death of Martin Luther King. France suffers from the same institutional forgetting. Though smaller in scale rioting similar to this November’s has occurred in France since the early 1980s. In fact, authors have described in detail the repeated actions of disenchanted youth of North African descent in decaying French conurbations.

The first scholar to write extensively on the subject in English, the anthropologist Ralph Grillo, saw the seeds of such violence during his research directly after the 1973 oil crisis, which precipitated industrial decline across Europe and led to a ban on the importation of foreign labor in France. In his interviews, Grillo noted that, though peace persisted, French citizens expected violence to break out at any moment. This expectation of violence, Grillo observed, was based on the French oppression of Arab immigrants. Grillo observed, “These people are permanently devalued…they are rejected in the streets, at work, because they are Arabs. This resulted in violent activities as early as the mid-1970s, precursors to larger scale violence which bear shocking similarities to the rioting that occurred last November. For instance, Grillo witnessed North African youth burning a car and, “rolling it over for a game.” 1

The French self-fulfilling prophecy that violence would come to the streets did not take long to come true. More serious rioting began in the early 1980s. In the spring of 1981, the government threatened to deport those who had participated in North African concerts where there had been violent clashes with the police. Though the government later rescinded the deportation orders, as a response to fear of deportation as well as continued police action against immigrants, in the “hot summer” of 1981, young North African youth in the suburbs, participated in rodéos; they stole cars, joy rode them through the city, and set them afire on intersections terrifying the French public.2 Though the French police cracked down on North Africans hard at first, directly as a result of the riots, France loosened up its severe associational laws to permit for freedom of associations for immigrants not possessing French citizenship3, teaching the immigrants an important lesson that violence can lead to policy changes in their favor. These riots also created a backlash, fueling anti-immigrant sentiment and giving Le Pen’s National Front a huge electoral boost. While at the same time the government was making concessions to alleviate dynamics of exclusion, the electorate was giving politicians less room to remedy their problems.

While the associational laws defused the violence in the short-term, the situations of immigrants did not improve overall. Radio Beur, a station that targeted the North African community, reported that, between September 1982 and October 1983, 19 North African immigrants had been killed and 44 injured in racially targeted violence.4 When a policeman shot a teenage immigrant leader in the housing project of Les Minguettes outside of Lyons, violence flared again. Again, the French responded with increased police action. As a result of the incident and continued violence, groups organized the 1983 March for Equality against Racism. The march was profoundly influenced by the United States’ civil rights movement and even featured Coretta Scott King. President Mitterand himself greeted many of the over 100,000 marchers and said that he would acquiesce to many of their requests. As a response, the government passed legislation to allow for a combined ten-year work and residency permit, again demonstrating that violence accompanied by mass mobilization yielded politically significant outcomes.

Seven years passed with only murmurs from the predominantly North African neighborhoods. Patrick Ireland argues that the relative calm was a result of the institutional “tinkering” that occurred during the 1980s.5 The tinkering, however, did not get at the root causes of the North African dissatisfaction, and as the unemployment rate continued to rise, violence erupted again in 1990. In Vaulx-en-Velin, a purported showpiece of suburban renewal, poor disaffected youth began setting fires and looting in the commercial district; violence that soon spread to other suburbs.

The history of North African violence and the response by the French government tells a recurring story seen yet again last November. The death of two children triggered rioting whose deeper underlying factors were economic malaise and racial discrimination. This last November the French again first responded with hard-nosed police actions, and then promised policies to ameliorate the conditions of families of North African origins. During the 80s and 90s the improvements that the French government made, however, did not solve the cores issues of racial discrimination and economic malaise. The Economist reports that youth unemployment (15-24) in France’s suburban ghettos hovers at a staggering 40 percent. Manual labor jobs that once welcomed these youth’s parents or grandparents no longer exist, and the education system has failed to integrate North African youth allowing almost no upward social mobility. Even those who succeed in obtaining an education feel discriminated against, as evinced by a BBC interviewee who was a civil servant that participated in the rioting! He said, “Even in the civil service, we are victimised. We have to work twice as hard as white French people.” Whether the solutions the French government has proposed this time around will be able fix these problems remains an open question.


1 R.D Grillo, Ideologies and Institutions in Urban France: The Representation of Immigrants (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 185

2 Patrick Ireland, The Policy Challenge of Ethnic Diversity: Immigrant Politics in France and Switzerland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 78.

3 In 1981 most North Africans were not citizens and this was an important piece of legislation. However, under French law those born in Algeria before 1963 were considered to have been born on French territory regardless of whether they were Muslim and, therefore, not French citizens. As a result, under French nationality law, which grants citizenship automatically to second-generation immigrants, these Algerian’s children who were born in post-1963 France were considered to be the second generation and were automatically granted French citizenship upon reaching the age of 16. After 1979, Algerian nationals born on post-1963 French territory began to automatically obtain French citizenship and all of them became dual citizens because under Algerian jus sanguinus laws they could never lose their Algerian citizenship. This is one of the main reasons that a large percentage of the youth in France today have French citizenship.

4 By Richard Derderian, North Africans in Contemporary France: Becoming Visible ( New York Macmillan, 2004), 28.

5 Ireland, 91.

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Jason KEuter - 1/11/2006

I believe there were reports that several signs in the area where the kids were electrocuted quite clearly, and prominently, warned that the fences were electric and lethal.

Andrew D. Todd - 1/10/2006

Who says they couldn't read. It seems obvious that they were attempting to scrape off police pursuit by going somewhere dangerous enough that the police would not dare to follow them. You are obviously too young to have seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the theaters.

Jason KEuter - 1/9/2006

Actually, I think they were two teenagers. I know they should have been able to read. Worse, I think it fair to assume that there were some pictures showing figures being zapped for touching the fence. This means the two victims were somewhat more than illiterate - ill prepared to participate in an election in which the parties distinguish themsevles on ballots with symbols for their mostly illiterate constituencies.

Jason KEuter - 1/9/2006

The most recent spate of riots was not triggered simply by "the death of two children"; it was triggered by the death of two adolescents who, running from the police, electrocuted THEMSELVES on a defense because they COULD NOT READ.

It's all a matter of emphasis. The most needed reform in France is better READING instruction in the schools. THOSE WHO CANNOT READ ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT THE HISTORY THEY CAN ONLY SEE ON TELEVISION!