Riots in France: anything new since 2005? edit

July 1, 2023

The violence that has erupted in several French communes following the tragic death of young Nahel last Tuesday has come as no surprise to those familiar with the situation. Unfortunately, the factors that were at the root of the 2005 riots are still present. And two novelties make the situation even more difficult to manage.

The hate for the police

In the investigation a number of colleagues and I carried out in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a Paris suburb) after the events of 2005, at the request of Centre d’analyse stratégique, we felt that the hate for the police was a key factor. “Hate” is a strong word, but it’s appropriate. The context in these neighborhoods is one of general hostility among young people towards the police. When tragic events such as in 2005 the deaths of Zyed and Bouna following a police chase in Clichy-sous-Bois occur, this hostility turns to detestation. Today, the scenario is identical. What are its foundations? There are many.

It is no mystery that a parallel economy (a euphemism for delinquent activity) thrives in these neighborhoods. My colleague Sébastian Roché documented this in his 2016 study of “adolescents and the law” carried in Bouches du Rhône, the Marseilles district. The police therefore intervene to suppress these delinquent activities or at least control their expansion, with varying degrees of success. This context has two consequences. Firstly, it inevitably creates tensions between young people and the police, as police interventions and checks are more frequent than elsewhere. Many young people are stopped, even those who are not involved in the underground economy. It’s a form of statistical discrimination (every young person is a potential suspect) that feeds a feeling of ostracism to which I’ll return later.

The second consequence is the spread of a deviant culture. Living in a neighborhood where these delinquent activities are part and parcel of daily life can generate two kinds of reaction: either exit, or loyalty, to quote Albert Hirschman’s famous analysis (1970). Those who choose exit (as we met in our survey in Aulnay-sous-Bois) have only one idea in mind: to flee these pathogenic neighborhoods, where success outside the framework of the parallel economy is extremely problematic. Those who choose loyalty do not condemn their fellows who engage in trafficking (even if they themselves don’t). A sort of indigenous theory of relative frustration takes hold. To survive, there’s no recourse but to defy the law. In our survey in Aulnay, many young people made comments of this kind, without any embarrassment or feeling of being provocative.

The feeling of collective ostracism

This feeling is based on the idea that the ethnic or religious group to which one belongs is, as a whole, the victim of ostracism by the host society. This feeling is much more widespread among young people of foreign origin or of Muslim faith than among other young people. 20% of the former (born in France to two foreign parents) and 23% of the latter (of Muslim faith) strongly agree with the divisive statement that “societies with a colonial past, like France, have been and will remain racist” (versus 9% of young people of French origin).  This section of young people is therefore totally convinced that they are facing a fundamentally hostile society, of which the police are the armed wing. This feeling of collective ostracism is reinforced by the ethnic concentration found in certain neighborhoods. In the survey we carried out on radicalism in high schools, the proportion of young people of foreign origin was as high as 80% in some high schools (for example in Seine-Saint-Denis, a very poor suburb located north of Paris). In this respect, the public policy called “politique de la ville”, which aimed among several goals to promote social diversity, has failed. In fact, the opposite is true: an ever-increasing concentration of poor and disadvantaged households.

Compared to 2005, the significant increase in the adherence of young people of foreign origin to Islam has also increased the cultural distance separating this section of youth from the rest of society. The rules of secularism in schools are poorly accepted and sometimes circumvented. Their application is experienced by these young people as injustice and discrimination.

All in all, the feeling of belonging to the Nation is weak and is probably getting weaker.

The trivialization of violence

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, his famous book on the history of violence, convincingly defends the thesis that, over the long term in human history, violence has declined sharply, notably with the emergence of states that could arrogate to themselves a monopoly on legitimate violence, thereby curbing private violence, vendettas and revenge. This is a convincing thesis, but the history of violence can have its ups and downs. It’s hard to prove that collective violence has increased (we don’t really see any signs of this in the evolution of petty crime, for example), but we have the feeling that certain forms of violence, which are not villainous violence, but gratuitous violence, nihilistic in tone, are becoming commonplace, tending to be more tolerated. In this respect, the Yellow Jackets (Gilets jaunes) movement may have contributed to a form of disinhibition. The fact remains that in the Institut Montaigne survey of 18-24 year-olds, 22% of young people questioned consider it justified that “some people use violence to protest, express their anger or defend their ideas” (30% of young people of the Muslim faith are of the same opinion). It should be noted that the belief that we are dealing with a fundamentally racist society strongly reinforces this justification of violence: of all young people, those who agree with this idea (completely or rather) are 29% to justify violence, against 16% of those who do not believe in the theory of structural racism.

The flaws in the school system

This is a point I’ve often made in my Telos columns. The school system has partly failed in its mission of integration. It has remained stuck on a model that is supposedly universal, but which in reality produces inequality by applying uniform recipes to a socially and culturally increasingly diverse public. Schools have also neglected the task of republican integration: moral and civic education, which was a good idea, has not really been implemented, or has only been implemented on an ad hoc basis.

School guidance is another hard point that generates a great deal of dissatisfaction among pupils, particularly in these neighborhoods. All too often, young people from the housing estates leave the initial training system with no solid qualifications and no sense of civic responsibility.

Two new elements

Two new elements emerge compared to 2005. Firstly, the role of social networks. They are obviously not the cause of the riots, but they spread and amplify them. The most virulent, most committed young people take the lead and, through a snowball effect, draw in a mass of less active young people. The fact that the riots have spread well beyond the areas where they flourished in 2005 is undoubtedly linked to the role of social networks, as is the worsening of destruction and degradation compared to eighteen years ago.

The second new element is the political context. In 2005, the prevailing feeling was one of stupefaction, and there was no real political exploitation of the events. Today, the context is obviously very different. The hysterization of political debate that has become a constant feature of this new legislature has naturally seized on this event. The extreme left party La France insoumise (LFI; led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon) is seeking to make political capital out of it, but is taking risks by appearing to half-heartedly support violence that the vast majority of French people condemn. As for its extreme right counterpart Rassemblement National (led by Marine Le Pen), it doesn’t need to say much to hope to profit from it. In any case, it seems unlikely that these political stances will have much influence on the course of events.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of this movement is its apolitical, or even anti-political, character. In riots, it’s the symbols of political institutions, or institutions at all, that are attacked. The rioters have no real demands to make. They are in no way looking for a political relay to express them. And that’s the difficulty for any government seeking to channel the movement: to whom should it talk, and what should it propose? Of the three terms that make up the title of Hirschman’s book, the first two of which I mentioned earlier (exit and loyalty), the third, voice, is missing: the questioning of institutions with the aim of obtaining a response to demands. The way out of the crisis is therefore singularly difficult to find.