THE HEADLINES CALLED IT “France’s Intifada.” Televisions depicted flames from the “Muslim unrest” dangerously close to the Eiffel Tower. Isolated cries of “Allahu Akbar” and scenes of imams trying to calm crowds were highlighted as worrying signs of the times in “Frankistan.” Politicians and the media hinted that Islamist militants were partly to blame for the rampaging youths and nightly fire bombings. News dispatches with datelines such as Clichy-sous-Bois sounded like they were actually describing a “Baghdad-on-the-Seinc. ”

A few weeks later, with calm restored, cooler heads prevailed. Police and intelligence agencies said they found no evidence of any Islamist role in the unrest. Some even praised local imams for helping to restore order in their neighborhoods. After some initial confusion, politicians began to admit that the French model of integration had fallen far short of its lofty goals. A few audacious ones even proposed a real response, such as affirmative action, to help youths climb out of the bleak suburbs where the French system has parked them.

The three weeks of rioting that rocked the country’s suburban slums in late October and early November were a rude wake-up call for France. The unrest was an outburst of frustration from an underclass that most French thought was safely hidden away in housing estates on the edges of the main cities. The youths are protesting against politics as usual in a country where large-scale unemployment – 10% across the country, and between 20% and 40% in the tough suburbs – is seen as inevitable. They were telling a society in denial that it was marred by racism and discrimination just like other countries. This was a frontal assault on France’s cherished self-image as a nation of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The unrest also casts a worrying spotlight on how France’s majority sees the country’s second-largest religion. There are an estimated 5 million Muslims in France, around 8% of the population, and many have been born and educated here. They have been told repeatedly that the strength of France’s model of integration is that it treats immigrants as individu- als, not as members of ethnic or religious groups as is done in English-speaking countries. But as soon as the trouble flared in the suburbs, the rioters were collectively seen as Muslims and linked to the worst worries about Islamist radicalism. The gap between them and the majority was perceived as religious, not as the classic gulf between the haves and havenots that the rioters saw.

“This was called an Intifada of the suburbs,” said Olivier Roy, a leading French expert on Islam and author of the book Globalised Islam. “From the outside, it was seen as mostly an ethnic movement. But there was no sign to signal the identity of this movement. There is a tradition in such protests in France to wave Palestinian or Algerian flags or wear an Arafat-style keffiyeh. They are symbols of protest, and not only for youths from immigrant families. But there was absolutely none of this.”

Some politicians and commentators gave the impression that they might have preferred to see such signs. That would have confirmed their “clash of civilizations” views and Muslims in France could be blamed for not integrating. The French could continue to believe in the superiority of their “republican” system of integration – which refuses to recognize ethnic or religious minorities – over the multicultural models in Britain and the United States. The growth of an unwanted underclass – one of the ticking time bombs of globalization – could be played down so as not to frighten a population already deeply concerned about all these new pressures coming from abroad. In short, little or nothing would have to change.

But the rioters were unmistakably French, and not only because almost all were citizens. They have internalized French political values so well that they want France to live up to its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their dream was not to overthrow the system, but to make it work so they could get ahead too. They didn’t have to look to the Palestinians for tactics. In the past year alone, French television has shown scenes of protesters scuffling with riot police, trade unionists smashing factory property, antiGMO brigades destroying modified crops, striking sailors hijacking their ships and other open violations of the law. Political violence is as French as baguettes and berets.

Emmanuel Todd, a demographer whose book The Immigrants’ Destiny takes an in-depth look at integration, said he saw nothing that really separated the rioters from French society. “In fact, I see the opposite,” he said. “I interpret these events as a refusal to be sidelined. This could not have happened if these children of immigrants had not embraced some of the fundamental values of French society, for example, the ideals of liberty and equality. I see their revolt as a cry for equality … In this regard, these youths are quite assimilated in terms of political values. And history tells us there is no revolt without hope.”

France’s unrest, its worst since the 1968 student protests, broke out Oct. 27 after two youths were electrocuted at a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, a rundown suburb northeast of Paris. Zyed Benna, 17, a Tunisian immigrant, and BounaTraoré, 15, of black African origin, jumped the substation’s fence trying to hide from a police identity check after a robbery they had no part in. The news that an ID check, a procedure minorities say French police regularly use to harass them, had led to two deaths triggered the first protests. A classic local clash ensued – hooded youths set cars ablaze and pelted police and firemen with rocks and bottles when they came to put the fires out. Clashes like this are not unusual in the banlieues. What was different this time was that the unrest spread night-by-night, first through the Paris suburbs and then to those of other cities. Images of hooded youths and blazing cars spread around the world. Unable to contain the unrest, Paris declared a state of emergency Nov. 8, but the rioting continued.

Three weeks later, on Nov. 17, police said the riots were finally over after the number of vehicles set ablaze overnight fell below 100. That number may surprise outsiders, but the French take it in their stride, since it is roughly the daily average of such arson cases in a normal year. On the night of Nov. 6, at the peak of the violence, about 1,400 cars, vans, trucks and buses were torched. The toll for the three weeks was about 9,000 vehicles torched and dozens of stores, schools and other buildings burned down.

Nobody denied that the suburban youths had valid complaints. Their housing estates are soulless projects far from city centers. Schools are staffed with inexperienced teachers, police are aggressive toward minorities and unemployment is widespread. Even success in school often does not lead far. “Employers often see an address from the suburbs and reject your application,” said Jeremie Garrigues, 19, a business student in Aulnay-sous-Bois near Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. “Lots of youths from the suburbs go to universities known as ‘parking lots’ and get useless degrees,” author Roy said. “With that degree, they can become a social worker in the suburb they’re trying to escape. They’re back to where they started. So they’re frustrated.”

Once the dust settled, some interesting facts emerged. Despite widespread concern about the unrest invading the rich city centers, almost all of it was confined to about 150 suburbs that police categorize as “difficult.” About half the 3,000 or so young males detained were younger than 18. Only 6% or 7% were not French citizens. Of those detained, 640 of them were subsequently arrested. Most of them already had a police record for petty crimes. Although most had Arabic or African names, the list of detainees in some areas, such as northern France, was full of French, Portuguese and Italian names – hardly likely to be the vanguard of an Intifada.

Before that was known, however, several politicians jumped to worst-case scenarios. The tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy warned that the unrest was “completely organized” and that “mafias and fundamentalists” would profit from it. “Everybody is fed up seeing our town and our district trampled over daily by these organized gangs,” Gerard Gaudron, conservative mayor of Aulnaysous-Bois, told a citizens’ march against violence. Le Monde, the influential daily newspaper, reported that “Muslim crowd marshals” in djellabas and long beards were out talking to the rioters. The word in Paris was that cries of “Allahu Akbar” were heard. But residents in the suburbs weren’t buying the idea that religion was behind the unrest. “I don’t think that’s the real reason,” said Fouzi Guendouz, a French-born business student of Algerian origin, after hearing Gaudron speak. “The politicians blame it on Islamists because the French are afraid of this religion. They think Islam equals Bin Laden.” When doubts about the Islamist link grew, some politicians began blaming the unrest partly on polygamy among African immigrants. That argument held for two or three days and then disappeared.

Muslim leaders bitterly denounced the way that politicians turned to them for help when the suburbs burned. “They should stop Islamizing all problems concerning Muslims,” said Dalil Boubakeur, the Paris Grand Mosque rector and chairman of France’s Muslim Council. “We’re not social workers. We don’t want to be the scapegoats for the failures of integration policy. This is a generational problem. There weren’t just Muhammads and Alis in those groups – there were Tonys and Daniels too.” Kamel Kabtane, the Lyon Grand Mosque rector, said it wasn’t his imams’ job to calm rioters. “They didn’t act like that because they’re Muslims, but because of the misery they’re living in,” he said of the marauding youths. “When French farmers go out on protest, officials don’t ask the Catholic Bishops’ Conference to intervene.”

One of France’s largest Islamic organizations gave the religion argument an unexpected boost by issuing a fatwa against rioting. At the height of the unrest, the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF), a movement close to the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement that quoted the Qur’an: God does not love the mischief-makers (5:64) and Do not exceed the limits, surely God does not love those who exceed the limits (2:190). It then declared: “It is formally forbidden to any Muslim seeking divine grace and satisfaction to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone’s life. Contributing to such exactions is an illicit act.”

Boubakeur – a moderate Muslim of Algerian origin promptly denounced the UOIF for invoking religion to deal with vandals. “Many Muslims are surprised and regret that, in these dramatic and reprehensible circumstances, some Muslim organizations such as the UOIF think they can invoke God’s name in a call for calm.” In a pointed jab at the COIF for not mentioning the French law in the fatwa, Boubakeur said: “We urge strict respect for French law.” Thrown on the defensive, the UOIF argued that it had been flooded with telephone calls from Muslims seeking advice. “Everyone knows many youths took part in these events in rebellion against the established order that created inequality,” it said. “Simply urging them to respect the law would not help them overcome their disarray.”
In late November, two leading security officials flatly sta- ted that they saw no Islamist links in the unrest. “The role of radical Islamists in the violence was zero,” Pascal Mailhos, director general of the national police intelligence branch, told Le Monde. “The youths were copying each other and competing among housing estates, without much organization.” Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of DST, French counter-intelligence service, told RTL radio that radical Islamists “watched this movement with sympathy but it wasn’t their fight. They were not involved. Radical Islam was not involved in the events in the suburbs. We have to look for other causes.” There was some low-level coordination among friends by cellphone or Internet, but it did not develop more than that.

Neither of these officials can be suspected of playing down a threat. French security agencies like theirs are known to use Arabic-speaking agents to infiltrate Islamist groups and monitor Friday sermons in radical mosques. Their close cooperation in the war on terror has evoked high praise from U.S. officials who otherwise speak of France with disdain.

In retrospect, the absence of some key elements also undermined any talk of an Intifada. Marseille, the city with probably the highest immigrant population in all of France, stayed relatively calm during the unrest. Youths may not be much better off there, but they feel less isolated because housing estates are in the city rather than on the outskirts. The usual Palestinian or Algerian flags were missing. Nowhere were there calls to revoke the official ban on hijabs in state schools, a measure even many moderate Muslims here considered Islamophobic. “You never saw anyone saying he wanted the hijab law revoked – the only demand was that Sarkozy resigns!” Roy remarked. And there were no reports of anti-Semitic violence, on the rise in recent years and usually seen as a barometer of Islamist influence in areas.
“This was a generational movement in what we can call the underclass,” Roy concluded. “Many of these youths are from working class families, but there is no working class anymore. These housing estates were built in the 1960s and 1970s for industrial workers and their families, but the jobs they had back then have disappeared. So this is a poor underclass. And, as some economists have said, the problem with the poor is that we don’t need them. We needed the working class because they played a part in industrial production. But today these poor people are considered useless. They simply make problems.”

The youths were so disorganized that they failed to parlay their protests into a more cohesive movement that could press their demands. “There is a French tradition of protesting to demand concessions. These protests can quickly become violent. But usually, whether they’re farmers or workers or students, the protesters channel this into political action. But here, there was nothing. There was no coordination, no big meetings. It’s bizarre. In other unrests, there was always some kind of coordination. There was no transition to politics here,” Roy said.

If the rioters identify with anything abroad, it is the urban subculture they encounter on MTV or in American films and music. Roy, a close observer of popular culture among young Muslims, noted that when American films are dubbed here, the black men end up speaking French with the macho rapper-style accent popular in the Paris suburbs. “This is a youth subculture among the underclass that goes from Los Angeles to Paris via Bradford. It doesn’t have much to do with Islam, even if sociologically a good number of them come from Muslim immigrant families. They share the same culture as underclass kids in L.A.”

“The crisis we have just lived through has revealed weaknesses and inadequacies and has made us aware of the progress which has to be made,” Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Dec. ? when he unveiled his government’s response to the riots. Villepin, who is competing with Sarkozy for nomination as the conservative candidate for the presidency in 2007, said Paris would boost financial aid for schools in underprivileged areas. He announced tough fines for acts of job discrimination and said job applications should be anonymous so employers cannot guess an applicant’s ethnic or religious background. At another point, he also restored thousands of publicly financed jobs for youths that had been cut when the conservatives won the national elections in 2002. The government also pledged to step up a program of building better suburban housing. The approach was essentially one of improving present policy.

Two politicians, Sarkozy on the right and parliamentary deputy Manuel Vails on the left, argue for the establishment of some kind of affirmative action program to also help minorities. Most politicians object to this, saying that singling out minorities for special help would violate France’s “republican” model that ignores all group identities. But Sarkozy and Vails have been eloquently calling for change. “Proclaiming equality before the law is no longer enough,” Sarkozy wrote in Le Figaro newspaper. “Henceforth we have to promote equality by using the law. We cannot continue to accept that a growing number of individuals are allotted destinies written in advance.” Vails, who is also mayor of the multicultural suburban town of Evry, south of Paris, said the riots were “the consequences of 30 years of social and ethnic segregation. All policies, either from the right or the left, have failed. What I call territorial apartheid continues to worsen. If we don’t have a profound change of policy, I fear the country will be divided into small bits.” Although they come from opposing politicai camps and do not openly cooperate, both men have also argued forcefully that France should loosen its strict separation of church and state to help Muslims finance the construction of new mosques.

These two deputies are breaking the mold of French political thinking. Interestingly, Sarkozy is the French-born son of an immigrant Hungarian and Vails was born in Spain and moved to France as a boy. Vails is an up-and-coming deputy still building his base in the opposition Socialist Party. But Sarkozy, as a front-runner for the 2007 presidential election, could implement at least some of his ideas if he is elected. The question between now and then is whether the majority of French officials who don’t think their system needs real reform will be able to organize a rear-guard action to block Sarkozy from making it to the top.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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