Why French Streets Are on Fire Again

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Yves here. Yours truly is in no position to evaluate the deeper triggers for the riots in France. However, Philip Pilkington found that official data showed that food purchases had fallen a stunning 17% recently. Hunger is a powerful impetus for social upheaval, as Arab Spring showed. But I imagine any short, tidy description of French fissures will wind up being seen as superficial by those who know the country well, even if the points made aren’t incorrect. So reader corrections and calibration very much welcomed!

By Dr. Alain Gabon, associate professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA. He has written and lectured widely in the U.S., Europe, and beyond on contemporary French culture, politics, literature and the arts and more recently on Islam and Muslims. Originally published at Middle East Eye

Though history never repeats itself even as farce, it often seems to, as is currently the case in France.

Riots have spread since the police killing of a French teenager of North African descent in the banlieue of Nanterre, after he allegedly refused to comply with an order to stop his car. According to video evidence and witness testimony, an officer threatened to shoot the youth “in the head” before firing his gun when the car took off.

This feels like a replay of the 2005 deaths of two young teens chased by police in another Parisian banlieue, which led to weeks of nationwide riots and a state of emergency imposed by the government.

The Nanterre incident, in which one officer has been charged with voluntary homicide, also recalls the 2016 death in police custody of 24-year-old French African Adama Traore, who subsequently became a symbol of the brutality and racism of the French police—and more broadly of the French state—against ethnic minorities. His death launched a wave of protests and activism for racial justice.

In recent days, French citizens have again been subjected to a problem whose roots can be found in its colonial history: an obsessive fixation on the visibility not of “religion in the public space,” as it is sometimes described, but of one religion only: Islam, whose practitioners are subjected to an ever-worsening differential and unequal treatment, securitization policies, and state persecution, in full violation of France’s professed values and constitutional guarantees.

These guarantees include equality before the law, freedom of religion, and the principle of laïcité, which obligates the state to treat all religions on a strictly equal footing. But who could possibly claim with a straight face that the French state treats Islam and its practitioners the same as Christians or Jews?

Having previously banned “religious symbols” (read: Islamic ones) from public schools and burqas from public places, France is now in the midst of a new witch hunt against students wearing abayas in schools, on the grounds that they are “religious symbols” and thus fall under the 2004 law.

This has led to the usual hysterical accusations from the far right that these young girls are, if not “Islamist agents” seeking to topple the republic, at least “manipulated” by such groups, and that the Macron government is too soft on “Islamism.”

Targeting Muslims

Competing for attention and headlines in the French news media, a new national debate around (and against) women’s Islamic dress is again targeting “visible Muslims,” vilified as threats, “Islamists,” or “radicals.” The media narrative is using the same old rhetoric (such as the need to “protect French laïcité” and to fight against “political Islam“), and it continues to have deleterious effects on Muslims.

Is the French Republic truly so weak that a few hundred school teens wearing long dresses, amid millions of other French students, somehow represent an existential threat to the nation—and if we don’t tackle this issue, “the Islamists will win” and we will soon be living in an Islamic-State-style caliphate?

This new campaign is even more outrageous, given that the abaya has no specific religious meaning and is often a simple fashion choice allowing girls to distinguish themselves from their peers, perhaps out of rebellion against mainstream Western culture. Prominent French imams, highly respected theologians and the French Council of the Muslim Faith (the semi-official representative institution of Muslims in France) have made it clear that the abaya is not a religious sign but a cultural choice.

At the same time, another recent “controversy” has focused on female football players, who have been protesting against the French Football Federation’s ban on headscarves. They, too, have regularly been accused by the dominant media of being dangerous, subversive “Islamists” at war with the republic.

All these interrelated events—the Nanterre killing, the banlieue riots, and the ongoing quest to demonize Islam—are symptoms of the deep structural problems that the French government, mainstream media, and dominant culture have developed with “post-colonial” minorities in general, and in particular the largely disenfranchised and segregated populations in France’s banlieues.

Instead of developing inclusive policies and encouraging an open culture more congruent with the dramatic societal transformations of France in the postwar era, the country is doing the opposite: excluding, stigmatising, vilifying, repressing, and discriminating against people and groups who only want to be treated equally. This includes the right not to get unjustifiably killed by police, and not to be summoned to choose between sport and education, or freedom of religion and conscience.

In particular, the government’s response to the Nanterre killing and ensuing riots—zealously echoed by the mainstream media in their “analysis” of these events—has been at its essence repressive, aiming solely to “restore order.” None of the root causes of the protests is being addressed.

Police Brutality

Most shockingly, the Macron government continues to refuse to recognize France’s deep police brutality problem, the systemic racism that plagues its “security” forces, and institutional Islamophobia, however well documented these phenomena have been by scholars, activists, local associations, human rights groups, and inhabitants of marginalized neighbourhoods.

Last week, France was officially condemned twice in one day over police racism, brutality, and excessive force. The United Nations human rights office urged France to address “deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.” The same day, the International Trade Union Confederation severely condemned France for “police brutality,” “blind arrests,” and repeated violations of workers’ rights.

Yet against all evidence—which includes the shocking declarations of France’s own police forces, whose fascistic elements have openly threatened to violently turn against the government itself—Macron and his government are continuing to ignore and deny.

On the U.N. condemnation, it merely declared that “any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded,” as it always does in such cases, which have become routine. This suggests the Macron government is now so weak and powerless that its own police forces can openly and publicly threaten it with insurrection and violence, and get away with it.

What we have here, in such systematic blindness, denial, and powerlessness, is not a repetition of history, but a country both unwilling and unable to even recognize, much less address, the root causes of recent events so that one day it may live up to its high ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

In the meantime, these have become increasingly vacuous words for Muslims and other minorities—and this is why the French streets are once again on fire.

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  1. Pinhead

    I lived for 25 years in the US and for almost 40 years in France. I can testify that North Africans, and to a lesser extent West Africans, are subject to the same discriminations and police double standards in France as Afro-Americans (now called “blacks”) in the US.
    This causes no discomfort to the majority in either country. So it is likely to erode only slowly, over generations, if at all.

    1. Pelham

      Sounds about right. What’s needed is some accurate gauge of public sentiment on these issues. And then perhaps the politics of France should conform to what the broad public wants, even if that entails codifying the apparently existing double standards.

  2. Aurelien

    I suppose this kind of article is useful in collecting together all the clichés, half-truths, misunderstandings and misrepresentations characteristic of a small but disproportionately influential segment of the PMC and its adjacent media which takes all its ideas from Washington, so you only have to read it all once.

    The recent riots have nothing to do with religion, and, to my knowledge nobody in France has suggested that they have. The only faintly religious element I’ve heard of is a series of attacks on Jewish targets with anti-semitic slogans scrawled. Not even the professional Islamists have tried to appropriate this one, and indeed Imams were among the first to condemn the riots and call for calm.

    That’s all you need to know really, but I’ll just make the obvious point that for twenty-five years now extreme Islamist groups, led for the most part by Imams from the Gulf, have been targeting schools in an attempt to undermine the secular nature of French education, which they consider a sin against God, and succeeding to a worrying extent. Secularism is one of the foundations of the French Republic: the equivalent in the US, I suspect, would be the abolition of slavery. Imagine, if you will, a group of immigrants to the US from a country that practiced slavery, advocating for changes in the law to permit it, and dismissing anti-slavery arguments as “racism” and you have some sense of how touchy the issue is. France’s last brush with this issue was as recent as the Vichy regime between 1940-44, where the Church became much more influential and the distinction between Church and State was pretty much done away with. Even today, there are powerful forces on the extreme Right keen to re-establish that influence, and they are massively strengthened by nonsense about permitting Islamic religious dress in schools. Only a few years ago, there was a big fuss when a right-wing mayor of a commune in the South of the country installed a crèche in the town hall before Christmas, but I suspect that kind of thing will be more common now. Already my contacts in education are telling me that religious parents are now sending their daughters to school wearing little crucifixes, theoretically banned, but of course the ban is now impossible to enforce. Politics in France is moving in the direction of right-wing parties at the moment, and many of them want to restore the place that religion once had in French life and politics. Useful idiots of the kind the author obviously spoke to are just making this easier. And once they have power, I wouldn’t want to be a Muslim.

    1. JustAnotherVolunteer

      God forbid any substantive change to the under-lying harms.

      “ Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

      The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”


    2. hemeantwell

      Aurilien, thanks for offering an impression of Muslim opinion. The writer only scolded on their behalf.

    3. mrsyk

      With apologies to the moderation team.
      Thank you Aurelian. I would add (in addition to evidence of rapidly growing food insecurity) that the rapidly steeping decline in the over-the cliff trajectories of two looming existential crisis (abrupt catastrophic climate change/nuclear war) should be considered as sources of discontent, possibly upping the ante for violent anti establishment behavior. Note that the elites are easily recognizable as responsible for both.
      I would also point out that there are good discussions of this in the comments of the July 1 and July 3 editions of “Links” here at NC.

    4. Stephen

      Gosh, thanks.

      The author also fails to note the long history of anti clericalism in France which was aimed against the Catholic religion from at least the 1790s, and which at various times received state support. It is not clear that Islam is treated any less fairly than any other religion when it comes to the rules that the secular state has set.

      I note too that the author seems to be French from his name but seemingly lives in the US. My guess is that many of the predilections of the English speaking globalist community have rubbed off.

      Been a while since I was last in France but my sense of the police is that they behave in an equally authoritarian way with all protesters. Irrespective of religion or creed.

  3. JustTheFacts

    What a typically American view.

    The problem is that people in the banlieues have become an underclass. Yes, many of them have Islamic backgrounds, and that certainly does not help, because people from different cultures have different expectations and assumptions, as anyone who has dealt with culture clash knows. But you get a similar phenomenon of an underclass in the poorest 100% white areas of Great Britain. I’ve been to both, and it’s not comfortable to see a mother hit her child with a closed fist on his head for asking a question, nor is it comfortable to walk around in an area where everyone is suspicious of you. People have little opportunity in such areas. They also don’t make themselves any opportunities. The illiteracy rate is extremely high, and as a result there is not much for them to do other than trade of dubious legality and petty crime. And then there are the new immigrants who get dumped in on top of those with no opportunity because of the EU’s open border policy (Thank you Angela Merkel for your “Refugees Welcome”. Thank you USA/NATO for your wars in the Middle East and Libya. Thank you SOS Méditerranée for helping the people smugglers). Some of them really want to make a go of it, but others were promised a land of milk and honey and instead find themselves living under a bridge in debt to the people traffickers.

    At this point 500 families control 45% of France’s wealth. Those at the top live in a parallel universe to those at the bottom, and yet those at the top determine the conditions those at the bottom live in. In the UK, people have been domesticated and very rarely riot. In France they haven’t but rioting does not change anything. Unfortunately those at the bottom don’t know enough to make those responsible for their plight accountable, so it’s those in the middle and those at the bottom who are striving who lose their cars, lose their libraries, lose their schools and lose their little businesses. In such a situation, authoritarians like Marine Le Pen will become much more popular as the middle class demands the underclass be repressed more harshly before they riot and destroy the stuff the middle class worked hard to get. Of course, if the underclass can no longer enter Paris for work, they’ll have even fewer opportunities, so this is a vicious cycle.

    The solution would be for those at the top to actually suffer the consequences for their poor decisions. If their livelihoods were on the line, they’d make better decisions. (Just as if those who send people to war were sent themselves, they’d be more assiduous in making peace — but that’s another topic.) But fixing this mess will be very difficult, and our current politicians/self-described elites aren’t remotely up to the task.

    Theodore Dalrymple has written about the British underclass in his book “Life at the Bottom”, and it is worth reading. I also recommend “Soumission” by Michel Houellebecq. It describes the decay of France’s elites and the discomfort of having a large growing minority with a very different culture taking over demographically and eventually economically as France’s (original) culture rots.

  4. DJG, Reality Czar

    I want to separate out one thread of Alain Gabon’s analysis that is thoroughly wrong-headed. His name may be French, but it is more than obvious that he is thoroughly Americanized. To wit: ‘Is the French Republic truly so weak that a few hundred school teens wearing long dresses, amid millions of other French students, somehow represent an existential threat to the nation—and if we don’t tackle this issue, “the Islamists will win” and we will soon be living in an Islamic-State-style caliphate?’

    Spare me. In the U S A, there is no separating religion out of secular culture. Polls show that Americans are afraid of atheists, as well as Muslims and Mormons:

    Similar tensions exist in the U S of A. One need only recall the Sikhs who have been killed “by accident” by anti-Muslim murderers.

    So the idea that laicité is somehow the culprit is baseless. Are there crucifixes in public schools in France? Does Macron end his addresses with the standard God-bless-merica blather? Is the populace required to intone Amazing Grace as a great American folk song?

    The U S of A could use a good dose of laicité.

    Now: Does France have problems with its police? Seems so. Ask the gilets jaunes.

    But let’s not start with a lot of babbling about religion (from the U.S. point of view).

  5. Sir Timothy

    American immigrant to France here (6 years in). To me, this article’s claims check out and it gives a good (broad) overview of the issue.

    I would have loved to see a mention of the way that the police violence against the Yellow Vest movement began shifting general public perceptions about the role of the police in society. For reasons that will be familiar to an American audience, the police heavily cracking down on mostly lower middle class and poor white people hit different in the public eye than repression against mostly black and brown people.

    1. JustTheFacts

      There are two views about immigration.

      One is that the society receiving the immigrant should adapt to him, be tolerant of his differences, make him feel at home. That’s very nice for the immigrant. But the welcoming culture can disappear, as the native Americans discovered: We aren’t all speaking Cherokee. Most of those in the US speak English, but there are pockets of people who only speak Spanish and other languages. Even the US is no longer British, despite having been a British colony, but a mix of cultures. (“How’s it going?” is not English Grammar, but German — Wie gehts?) The UK also falls into this more welcoming category, but having a larger indigenous population, it hasn’t been overwhelmed yet.

      The other view is that the immigrant should adapt to his host society. This view is more common in the non Anglosaxon world. The inhabitants of such countries do not want to lose their culture, their language, their way of living, just because other people decided to emigrate. Some countries (Poland, Russia, Hungary, Japan, China) make it very difficult to immigrate. They don’t want their culture to disappear. Others have allowed a lot of immigration, but require the immigrants to adopt their culture, such as France that requires people to become French.

      While the first kind of society is easier for the immigrant to be accepted in, the second might actually help him gain a better understanding of the people he lives among. Another aspect is that it is easier to live and let live, if there is a lot of space in your country, and you can simply migrate elsewhere. That is something Russia and the US share, but European countries don’t. The Americans moving out of California to Florida and Texas, and vice versa, due to politics in the US, come to mind.

      The problem in both types of countries is that some immigrants don’t integrate but continue practicing their religion and culture. Particularly difficult cultures for Western societies to deal with are those where women have fewer rights, children are wed in arranged marriages or sent “home” to be subjected to female circumcision. These cultures also tend to have hatred for the host population: the UK has been described as immoral and degenerate by people from such backgrounds in academic settings. More recently, the Rotherham (etc) incidents show that this is an actual belief held by some of that population. Some Western cultures are now seen as evil colonizers, responsible for slavery (even though they stopped it), etc.

  6. Roger Blakely

    The level of discord in this discussion is remarkable. No wonder Yves proceeds with caution. Anyone making a good-faith effort at explaining what is going on in France needs to have thicker-than-normal skin.

  7. skippy

    I thought this was fairly basic, regardless of region or time and space, if you remove – opportunity – from a select group, be it class or ethnicity, it will invariably be a ticking time bomb which only needs a spark and it will explode like an ammo dump filled with all kinds of stuff … sorta like a mob psychotic episode … history is replete with examples …

    1. Astroturf Violence

      MacGregor said that this riot spread too fast to be organic. He doesn’t give any reason though. Who do the globalist want to punish or warn with the French riots? I am no stranger to the thought because those who peddle in globalism are also peddling chaos and death.
      It could be the mext step for just unleashing a military-junta-style oppression from police and military


  8. Matthew G. Saroff

    The Macron government is not refusing to recognize the police brutality program, they are supporting police brutality.

    Macron is an oligarch serving the oligarchs, and the French police are the Pinkertons.

  9. viscaelpaviscaelvi

    When the gilets jaunes went on the streets (and roundabouts) of France, the banlieues stayed quiet.
    Now that the banlieues are on fire, the gilets jaunes are standing on the sidelines.

    The ultimate effect of immigration for the left is a division of the working class along cultural lines. The absence of a shared political platform is killing us.
    I left France in 2005, so my grasp of the politics there is sketchy, but that division in the popular classes is now reflected on a nascent rift in the political left (true left, not what passes for it in our beloved media). Just because I was listening to him this morning, I take Michel Onfray (philosopher, not a politician) to talk for a certain pro-gilets jaunes, nationalist (Républicaine) left) part of the left. That part seems now to be at odds with pro-banlieue revolt, more universalist (also rhetorically Républicain, but here the République is universal, ha ha) Mélenchon.

    So the last election was about peeling the left-leaning educated classes off away from any real left party and into voting for a fake left, third-way, Macron. Mission accomplished.
    Now we have got a divide in what is left of the left. The gilet-jaunistes don’t want anything to do with the Mélenchonistes.

    Next stop: LePen.

    There we go.

    1. viscaelpaviscaelvi

      In my lunch-time break, I finished listening to that Michel Onfray interview: he is going to end up supporting Marine Le Pen. He is clearly signalling towards that. What his individual stance means for the gilets-jaunistes more broadly, I am not sure.
      We’ll keep an eye on the developments. If faut bien s’amuser!

    2. JustTheFacts

      Also listened to Michel Onfray on Europe 1. He said the riots stopped because the drug dealers told the rioters to stop because it was bad for their business…

      Of course the government will credit it to their banning of reporting on the riots by social media.

  10. JBird4049

    Good grief. This is goofy. Maybe I am too provincial of an American, but by what right does the government have to deny free speech and religion besides being a repressive, oligarchic or dictatorial one? Really, if anyone is afraid of something like a cross, head scarf, or a kippah, I don’t know how to respond; if a politician or demagogue makes a stink, what of it? Ignore him or her.

    It also appears that much, if not most, of the unrest comes from bigotry backed by the police; one can blame or criticize people for rioting especially when they hurt innocent people, but really, just like in the United States, people riot, burning and pillaging usually on innocent people as well with too many Americans looking in horror and demanding that the rioters stop and use peaceful means without noticing that those peaceful means usually changes nothing and for generations.

    Didn’t MLK say that “a riot is the language of the unheard?” Setting aside the thugs, crooks, and fools who seem to always be around, what about the majority of the people who just want a decent for themselves as well as their neighbors, friends, and family? Are they being heard or are too many tut tutting that they are annoyed with their daily routine is being disturbed?

  11. disc_writes

    Thank you for this post.

    A lot of commentators from the US highlight the “racial” and religious aspects of the uprisings, but leave class in the background. This is probably because race and religion are crucial in the US and you assume it must be thus everywhere else in the world.

    I doubt the French and, for that matter, most French-Maghrebins really care that much about either “racial” differences or religion: the police will not target a skilled and well-dressed Algerian office worker in La Defense. In fact, they will barely notice that his skin is slightly darker. His employer will be happy to grant him a place to pray in the office. The canteen will have halal food and no one will have a problem with it.

    The “other” French, the “white” ones, were setting the streets on fire before the pandemic and were equally mad at the police and at the system. It surely wasn’t because they were being targeted as Moslims (or Catholics).

    I think that poverty is a greater problem. Alienation from society creates the need to identify with something bigger than yourself and in opposition to the system – the Islam, in this case.

    Lack of opportunity is the cause, religion and ethnicity are the excuse.

  12. Stephen

    With respect to the first paragraph in the above comment it might be related to the secular status of the French state and (see my comment above) a strong historical tradition of anti clericalism.

    One acid test of discrimination against a specific religion would be if Catholic priests in their cloaks routinely are allowed into state schools but imans were not. For example. I do not know the answer to that but I think reality is more nuanced and this really is a different type of culture to the Anglo ones.

    For example, Britain has no separation of church and state in the way that France does. The US state was theoretically secular but religious tradition lies at the heart of the union. Not an anti clerical tradition. We should be careful before we condemn either side in this ongoing tragedy.

    1. Aurelien

      You rarely see Catholic priests in their soutanes in public these days, and they would be thrown out of any school or public building they tried to enter. When the long and bitter battle for separation of Church and state was finally won in 1905, Clemenceau sent the police and army into schools to evict the priests and nuns who were refusing to leave. Anticlericalism is a significant part of the French psyche, although, as I have suggested above, the antics of the Islamic extremists are also strengthening the hand of religious extremists in the Catholic church.

      1. JBird4049

        It seems to me that anticlericalism has become anti-religion and more specifically as an excuse to oppress “those” people whoever they happen to be, but especially the poor and working classes.

        An upperclass black American gets far less police abuse although still some, if they dress, talk, and act as such. A poor white American is likely to get nearly as much police abuse although not the same, if they do not dress, talk, and act as a high status American. Vocabulary alone can make a big difference. It is almost as if there was an invisible stain or an indication to the police just how to treat the person in front of them.

        Just as, if not more importantly, it appears religion is being used to cancel the right to free speech, which is foundational to every other right.

        Anyways, if anyone tried to cancel or censor someone merely because of their faith or religious advocation, it probably would become very uncomfortable to that censor, which is how it should be.

  13. Paul Art

    When the elite want to change the subject from economic inequality unrest, methinks they send out whispers and a cop goes out and kills a colored person, preferably young and in a dramatic fashion. Mission accomplished. Now everyone is talking about race and/or immigration. The riots first started as a protest against the raising of the retirement age, no?

  14. Savita

    Fairly recent French film on this topic some may like. It premiered at Cannes. ‘Les Miserables’. Its about two cops working the banlieue day in day out.With their third colleague fresh in, and wet behind the ears. It is gritty, obviously! I loved it for its accurate portrayal of a particular part of reality I’ve only viewed from the edges.
    Note the nuance of the opening scene: EVERYONE is celebrating France win the World Cup

  15. JustTheFacts

    The following is an interesting twist: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-749141

    If riots involve the deliberate defacement of a Holocaust memorial, and if said defacement takes the form of threatening Jews with a new Holocaust, as has happened in the Paris suburb of Nanterre last Thursday, where the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation was defaced with the slogan “On va faire une shoah“ (We are going to make a Shoah), it’s hard to see how one could argue that those riots – whatever the original cause of their ignition was – should not described as antisemitic.

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