Unrest in poor French neighborhoods : fact sheet
Compiled by the French embassy in Washington - Updated November 30, 2005
I. MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE RECENT UNREST
1) What France experienced was social unrest, not riots.
“Riots” is certainly too strong a word to describe what happened in France, in particular when compared with the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
During the Los Angeles riots, 54 people died and 2,000 were wounded.
During the entire period of unrest in France, three people died, two teenagers (prior to the unrest) who jumped over the wall of an electricity substation, and one adult, who died after being injured by teenagers.
Other major differences between the events in Los Angeles and those in France are that in France, there were virtually no guns and no adults in the streets. Almost all of the protagonists were teenagers between the ages of 12 and 20.
The unrest was triggered by the death of the two teenagers, and it spread from neighborhood-to-neighborhood, from teenager-to-teenager. There was a “copycat phenomenon” aided by cell phones and the Internet, and by teenagers in one neighborhood seeing on TV what was happening in the neighborhood in a nearby city. In this way, the unrest spread and lasted two weeks.
2) This unrest was not related to the role of Islam in France.
It had nothing to do with a “clash of religions” or civilizations or cultures.
2.1. No information has indicated that this was any sort of an organized movement or that there was any sort of leadership.
2.2. Religion, in particular Islam, had no influence - either positive or negative — on those who committed the violence:
The leaders of the Muslim community in France did their best to quell the unrest, but their calls went unheeded. The head of the Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) — the organization within which all the Muslim organizations of France are represented — issued a strong statement. Other Islamic groups issued similar statements, calling for an end to the unrest, saying that it was “un-Islamic.” But their appeals were ignored by the young people in these impoverished neighborhoods.
Not all of those involved were Muslims. A 20-year-old man from northern France received the heaviest sentence delivered to a participant in the unrest: four years in prison for arson. He is white and not Muslim.
Few religious establishments were damaged. Contrary to 2001-2002, during which several attacks against synagogues occurred in connection with the situation in the Middle East, only one such attack was recorded.
2.3. The unrest was not part of an Islamist threat.
Some media made the connection between the terrorist attacks in Amman, Jordan and the recent events in these impoverished French neighborhoods. The French government has found no link, direct or indirect, with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization, or with events in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Middle East.
This doesn’t mean that recruitment of young Jihadists may not happen. The French government knows that in some places, including some mosques and private homes, Jihadists are recruiting teenagers to be sent to Iraq for Jihad, and then back to France for Jihad in France. But that is a different phenomenon, and it has nothing to do with the social unrest that took place in recent weeks.
2.4. Those involved in the unrest were not protesting the French principle of secularism (known in France as “laïcité”).
The unrest had nothing to do with the principles behind the law banning all conspicuous signs of religious belief in French public schools, including head scarves. No teenage girls participated in the demonstrations.
2.5 According to the office of research of the U.S. State Department, which recently issued its yearly analysis, "large majorities of Muslims in France voice confidence in the country’s government, feel at least partly French and support integrating into French society." It was further noted that, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the State Department, 95 percent of French Muslims have a favorable overall opinion of France, 89 percent of them express confidence in public schools and 65 percent in the national government.
II. WHERE, WHAT AND WHY?
1) Where did the unrest take place?
In poor neighborhoods. There are more than 100 such neighborhoods in France. It did not happen in all of them, and it did not happen in major cities. Marseille, the second-largest city in France, has by far the largest percentage of Muslims of any city in France, yet no unrest occurred there. Similarly, there was no unrest in a number of neighborhoods with Muslim populations, because those neighborhoods are not economically disadvantaged.
2) What was targeted?
10,000 vehicles, many belonging to parents, friends and neighbors, were damaged or destroyed.
200 public buildings were damaged or destroyed. These included schools, nurseries, gymnasiums and police stations.
130 policemen were injured on duty.
The overall cost of the unrest is estimated at $250 million, including $20 million in automobile damage.
3) Why did this unrest happen? What were the contributing factors?
Many of these teenagers feel alienated and discriminated against socially and economically. As French President Jacques Chirac said in his speech on November 14, “It is a crisis of direction, a lack of points of reference, a crisis of identity.”
These teenagers want to be considered 100 percent French — they were not seeking to assert their differences, or fighting to be recognized as a minority, either ethnic or religious. On the contrary, they want to be accepted as full citizens of the French Republic. They are demanding more “liberty, equality, fraternity,” not less. They want to be part of the French dream that brought their parents or grandparents to France.
Some of these teenagers live in broken homes. Many come from households headed by single mothers or unemployed parents, and there is sometimes violence at home. Moreover, parents often exert little authority over their children, who spend their time in the streets. They organize themselves and invent their own subculture. This complex situation is typical of these impoverished neighborhoods.
Mistakes made during past decades helped set the stage. The biggest was probably the construction of hundreds of high-rise buildings in response to the housing crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, when France experienced a big wave of immigration. This effectively transformed certain neighborhoods into ghettos, with high concentrations of unemployment, drugs and other problems.
III. THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE
1) The first order of business, of course, was to restore law and order. Police have arrested nearly 4,500 people, including 800 individuals who are now in prison.
2) Equally important was the need to restore social dialogue. This is being done, in new ways and on all levels. Neighborhood police, who are in direct contact with the population, are being reinforced. The role and functions of French mayors are being enhanced. Local community organizations, which are actively involved on the ground, are receiving additional resources.
3) A comprehensive policy is also being implemented with significant financial means:
$42 billion in aid will be dedicated to these neighborhoods.
3.1. Education is a top priority.
The government is tripling the number of scholarships available to students from these troubled neighborhoods.
The number of boarding school programs for deserving students is also being tripled, allowing more young people to escape their impoverished environment.
A mentorship program is being organized by the best French universities. They are being asked to open their doors to more students from these neighborhoods, something that is already being done by the Institute of Political Science (Sciences-Po) of Paris.
Apprenticeship programs will be made available for failing students beginning at age 14, to help them to get jobs more quickly.
3.2. Housing is another top priority
No social unrest took place in areas where high-rise ghettos have been replaced by better-conceived housing. The French government has already spent $30 billion on these improved housing programs. To bring more of them online quickly, the Prime Minister has asked the government to ensure that renovations be completed within 18 months.
This represents a huge effort to transform these poor neighborhoods into more lively places, with better housing, as well as gymnasiums, restaurants, movie theaters and other amenities designed to transform these blighted neighborhoods into livable spaces.
3.3. Third priority: jobs
This is the best way to integrate the disenfranchised. If a person has a job, he or she has a future.
The young people from these troubled urban areas will all be interviewed by representatives of the National Employment Agency in the coming months for a completely individualized assessment of their qualifications. Within three months, they will be offered a job, job training or an internship.
The French government’s proactive policy, which started months ago, is already getting results. The level of unemployment has declined during the past six months in a row. The government has also created in these neighborhoods 15 new opportunity zones, areas where businesses that create jobs may operate tax-free for five years.
3.4. Finally, France will continue to fight against all forms of discrimination.
It is not possible to ask young people to integrate and at the same time accept the fact that their origins sometimes prevent them from finding work. Fighting discrimination is not simply a moral duty, it’s also the best way to put an end to the violence.
President Chirac and the French government have created a High Authority to Fight Discrimination, designed to promote equality and equal opportunity. This High Authority has been empowered to impose sanctions in cases of proven discrimination. The objective is to ensure that all those with comparable diplomas and experience will be given the same opportunities in the workplace.
The problems that led to the recent unrest are complex, and solving them will be a difficult, long-term process. But the French Republic will remain faithful to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and is determined to make this cherished French ideal a reality for all French citizens.