Urban Violence in France

Burning car in the Paris area (Reuters)

Residential areas around France are burning. Cars are being torched. Local commerce is being reduced to broken glass, ash and smoke-damaged furniture and fittings. For the last couple of weeks, there have been a number of events around Paris which have caused widespread alarm.

The initial event which seems to have sparked off the violence is the case of a couple of boys who died after being allegedly chased by the police. The ran and climbed into an electricity substation and were electrocuted. Police denials and poor political followup only served to fuel the fire.

At the centre of the political issues is the French home office / internal affairs minister Nicolas Sarkozy (fr), a right-wing politician famously quoted in a previous case of urban unrest as saying “we’ll have to clean up these areas with Karchers”. (Karcher is an industrial cleaning machine manufacturer.) Sarkozy is pushing hard to improve conditions via radical methods in these “difficult areas”. What he means are those mainly poor areas with high percentages of first, second and third generation immigrant families, which are labelled “difficult” by the press and by politicians alike. Sadly, Sarkozy’s hard stance and unfortunate vocabulary is probably doing more harm than good. He is right to say that something must be done, but suggesting things involving industrial cleaners or using other language like “racaille (fr)” which can be interpreted as “yob” by some and “counter-culture” or “bohemian” by others instead of using words like “casseurs” (those who break things) is making him move further to the right and exciting the extremists who are rallying behind the fascist national front.

The violence is spreading at the current time, and some of it is happening quite close to me in neighbouring towns and communities. Yet again the French policy of areas of high rise housing where immigrants and the poor are grouped together coupled with low urban investment is raising its ugly head. France is not a cool place to be when you have the hard right rearing their heads and speaking out against immigrants. Especially when this fuels urban violence around areas where the young and old alike are reduced to auto-destruction of their own areas in order to be heard. I have to face the fact that many French businesses, state services (like town halls, etc) and the middle class are totally out of tune with the difficulties faced daily by those people who are poor, under educated, and living in a parallel economy in their ghettos.

Image credit: Reuters


  1. I blame the French government for allowing this BLACKMAIL to blow up Paris with riots caused by racism.

    Most of the affected Africans are illegal immigrants and since France has been lazy in arresting the ugly problems, they have become like a swarm of locusts.

  2. My current post – Is Paris Burning? – is about this as well. Since similar incidents have sprung up in DENMARK of all places, I am concerned tht these riots may not be as spontaneous as they appear.

    Another person made the good point that much of the French government today participated in the Student Riots of 1968, and may feel queasy about ‘quashing’ these, sot of like a parent feels like a hypocite telling his kid not to smoke pot. This many not BE another 1968, but something more sinister.

  3. Simon

    7/11/2005 at 9:55 am


    I think you have to be very careful about simplifying the situation around “illegal immigrants” and especially the use of phrases like “swarm of locusts”. A lot of people in these areas are second and third generation immigrants and hence are French nationals and there’s nothing illegal about that. Also, France has not been lazy so much as deliberately avoiding addressing the problem. The causes are mass youth unemployment and charged political statements from the leaders of the country in my opinion, but clearly immigration policy over the last 20 years is at the heart of the matters too.


    There is some evidence for coordination between groups now, but I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that coordination has gone outside national borders.

    Maybe there is some “generation 68” factor, but clearly the student movement in 68 had a very different political agenda from this rioting which is based around urban decay and the problems of amassing the underprivileged all together in poor quarters instead of working on a fairer social system for all. Telling someone not to smoke pot is one thing, telling them to stop dealing it for a living something else entirely.

    -Simon (fruey)

  4. I have nothing terribly intelligent to say about this crisis in your part of the world. I can say, however, that I have been trying to keep up a bit with our country’s National Public Radio, and that is sounds extremely disconcerting. One comment was “are the immigrants the asset the French felt they were, or the cause of this current rampage of destruction?”. I have not nearly enough brain power/knowlege to know which one, but in hearing the story, I thought of you, your beautiful wife, and new baby boy. Hope you are safe, and can get some sleep at night.

  5. Simon

    9/11/2005 at 10:12 am

    Hi Allison,

    First of all congratulations on your blog move. It looks a bit sparse right now but like you said you haven’t chosen your colours yet. I like the new structure though, is it WordPress?

    I think that most people in the country don’t have the knowledge to understand the situation. I can only scratch the surface myself. It’s a problem that I might equate to the race problems that happened in the 50s in the USA. Everything depends so much on where you are standing. I don’t think it’s to do with brain power, but experience. One can only observe from afar and pray that the violence will calm. Thankfully, they burned less cars last night than before; you can honestly hear the radio announcer saying “they only burned 500 cars overnight”. How very sad.

  6. I was wondering how close these riots are to you. I’m glad to hear you and your family are well.

    Actually, the 60s is more like it. Unfortunately, we can’t parallel what happened in our country back then to what is going on in your country now. For instance, Lyndon B. Johnson was president before the more vocal and physical discontent really began. He was at the forefront of racial equality, so there was, marginally, a better understanding of the issues we were beginning to face. Most racial tension centered in urban areas, although, the deep south contained many pockets of hatred against minorities of all kinds, particularly black. Still does, but, you can’t just go and hang “one of them there n*ggers” in your back yard trees anymore. To think that people still did that into the seventies down south is pathetic. Sure, we had riots similar to what is going on today, but, it was only one race. No other factions united like what you are seeing. And we had civil rights laws guarding against racism, like scaring blacks away from the ballot boxes.

    Aside from Johnson, along came Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, both of whom made giant strides toward the equalization of all ethnicities. Martin Luther King preached absolute non-violence. He was the determining factor that led to peaceful demonstrations, which eventually led to achieving many of his goals. Bigotry still plays a major role in today’s American society, but, without these leaders, I wonder how far we all would be today?

    Perhaps a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. will come along and help quell the unrest that is dividing segments of French society. Unfortunately, though, different classes of people will exist everywhere and that will always breed prejudice. I don’t see that changing in my lifetime.

  7. Simon

    11/11/2005 at 12:08 pm

    Hi Dave, excellent comment.

    I was thinking 50s because I’ve been hearing a lot about Rosa Parks since her death and she refused to give up her seat in 1955. But since your comment I’ve read around the subject a bit more and it was really the early 60s before the civil rights movement got up speed.

    You come up with a very good point about how this is more like overall prejudice against the poor, because it’s not to do with one race, religion or creed. It’s to do with people in downtrodden urban areas where unemployment can be higher than 60%. It’s like the underclass hitting out against their own property just to be heard and hoping against hope they will be able to rise out of thirty years of exclusion.

    -Simon (fruey)