Reflections on the Riots in France

What apparently started as isolated outbursts of urban unrest in the poor neighborhoods of Paris on 25 October following Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s chauvinistic remarks against the children and grandchildren of immigrants has eventually engulfed many parts of France into large-scale arson and rioting. The catalyst for the disturbance may be attributed to the accidental deaths two days later of Bouna and Zyed – two boys of African origin – in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris. In response to a silent march on 29 October by mourners in T-shirts reading “dead for nothing” Sarkozy pledged “zero tolerance” against the “scums” and sent police reinforcements that exploded a tear gas grenade at a Clichy-sous-Bois mosque on 30 October, provoking further anger among the immigrant Muslim community.[1]

With an estimated five million Muslim population, France has the largest concentration of Muslims living anywhere in West Europe. Of these, nearly a third (35%) is of Algerian origin, a quarter is of Moroccan origin, and 10% are of Tunisian origin. A vast majority of them live in poor suburbs of Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille and other cities where they are crammed more like cattle into busted housing projects than human beings living in decent and secure homes.

So, when the riots sparked off it was not too surprising that some individuals either impulsively or with ulterior motives jumped into finding a connection with Islam. As interviews and reports from the riot scenes emerged, it was quite obvious that religion had nothing do with this unfortunate event. Even President Chirac had to admit that not enough was done to integrate its Arab and African immigrants. He “deplored the fact that in these neighborhoods there is a ghettoization of youths of African or North African origin.” However, not all are convinced. Some mendacious and delusional Islamophobes who are always eager to exploit the post-9/11 atmosphere for reasons not difficult to fathom see the ghost of al-Qaida, Intifadha, Jihad, “Islamism” or “radical” Islam in these riots.

On a November 8, 2005 issue of the neocon magazine, Daniel Pipes wrote, “The time of cultural innocence and political naïveté, when the French could blunder without seeing or feeling the consequences, is closing. As in other European countries (notably Denmark and Spain), a bundle of related issues, all touching on the Muslim presence, has now moved to the top of the policy agenda in France, where it will likely remain for decades. These issues include a decline of Christian faith and the attendant demographic collapse; a cradle-to-grave welfare system that lures immigrants even as it saps long-term economic viability; an alienation from historic customs in favor of lifestyle experimentation and vapid multiculturalism; an inability to control borders or assimilate immigrants; a pattern of criminality that finds European cities far more violent than American ones; and a surge in Islam and radical Islam.” [2] (Emphases are mine.)

Although Pipes does not explain what he meant by political naiveté, it is not difficult to visualize that he may be taking a salvo at France for her opposition to join the neocon-managed war party in its invasion of Iraq! In Secretary Rumsfeld’s words, France and Germany, therefore, belonged to the “Old Europe.” In recent days, as a co-president of the Jerusalem Summit (JS), Pipes has been promoting the neocon agenda of reviving Europe into the mold of what he calls “New Europe.” The JS organizers are planning to hold its first European summit in Odessa, Ukraine on January 28-30, 2006 where they plan on presenting a White Paper on (1) the necessity of bringing together the “constructive” forces of Europe to resist the “dying-out” of Europeans, (2) the “de-Christianization” of Europe, and (3) “radicalization” of its Muslim population. [3]

Just look at the thematic similarity in these two statements. With the proposed summit coming up some ten weeks later, I would be surprised if its neocon organizers don’t exploit the riot outbreak to spread the gospel of Fascism to save the Judeo-Christian ‘values’ in ‘New’ Europe.

Obviously, when someone’s mind is locked into discovering Jihad much like a drooling hound-dog that is fixated with the scent it has smelled, one will not be distracted by other more compelling signs. Little wonder that Pipes rejects media analysis on the riots, and goes on to write, “The French press delicately refers to the “urban violence” and presents the rioters as victims of the system. Mainstream media deny that it has to do with Islam and ignore the permeating Islamist ideology, with its vicious anti-French attitudes and its raw ambition to dominate the country and replace its civilization with Islam’s.” (Emphases are mine.)

As one who has studied the spread of Jew-phobia (more commonly termed anti-Semitism) in the last century, Pipes’s choice of words is very similar to many Nazi hate-mongers of the past. Julius Streicher, for instance, was the editor of Der Stürmer. A popular headline in it read: Die Juden Sind Unser Unglück ("The Jews Are Our Misfortune"). In a South German edition of the Voelkischer Beobachter, 46 (no. 90), Munich, 31 March 1933, Streicher wrote: “The same Jew who plunged the German people into blood-letting of the World War, and who committed the crime of the November Revolution against it, is now engaged in stabbing Germany, recovering from its shame and misery, in the back. … And Judah declares war against Germany.” The magazine was at the forefront on its assault on Jews. However, it claimed that “it was not against Jewish religion, but against the Jewish race; the Jews were taught from the Talmud; the laws of Talmud were in harsh contradiction to German morals.”

In a June 1923 article in Aufbau-Korrespondenz, Max von Scheubner-Richter (a leader of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party) wrote, “Efforts to establish the ‘rule of the international Jews,’ an undertaking that in Russia ‘began with the extermination (Ausrottung) of the Russian national intelligentsia.'” [4]

In a March 1921 edition of the Voelkischer Beobachter, Alfred Rosenberg (Nazi Party’s chief ideologue) stressed that Jews threatened to bring about the “slaughter of the national leadership" in Germany followed by “bloody Jewish terror enforced with foreign troops as in Russia.” (“Schicksalswende in London,” Voelkischer Beobachter, March 6, 1921, p. 3.)

One only has to replace the terms Islam with Judah (or Judaism) and Muslim with Jew in Pipes’s writings to see the close resemblance with the Nazi propaganda. Really brilliant for the son of a Jewish refugee (who had fled from Nazi-occupied Poland)! [5]

As an obsessed Likudnik jihadist bent on expediting the ‘clash of civilizations’ with the Muslim world, Pipes naturally sees the ghost of Jihad in every act of violence. Thus, he says, “Indigenous Muslims of northwestern Europe have in the past year deployed three distinct forms of jihad: the crude variety deployed in the United Kingdom, killing random passengers moving around London; the targeted variety in the Netherlands, where individual political and cultural leaders are singled out, threatened, and in some cases attacked; and now the more diffuse violence in France, less specifically murderous but also politically less dismissible.”

How obtuse! What a naive analysis from one of the neocon minds of America! Away from such nonsensical polemics and disingenuous analysis, let us try to understand the root causes of these riots from the views expressed by the affected people in France. Here below are some statements captured by news reporters.

Racism: In an interview with the BBC reporters, Ziwyana Cherif, a resident of Clichy-sous-Bois, said, "I do see racism every day. People’s faces change as soon as they see a black or Arab face. The death of those boys was the straw that broke the camel’s back." [6] Maratt Sabek, another resident, said, “We just want to be recognized as human beings, instead of being seen as Arabs or blacks.”

In an interview on the PBS “News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” a male on a street was heard saying: “Maybe I have a paper French but I don’t think I am a French people because they think we are not French. I am French. I have the paper French. But when you go to the post, the police station, you are not French.” Another male (Translated) said: “Sarkozy did a really terrible job. He really messed it up. He treats us like we are dirt on the car tires. I am not a tire.” [7]

Unemployment and Racial Discrimination: Another resident, Mamadou Nyang (19) told a BBC reporter, “I left school two years ago but have never had a job. As soon as I say my name and where I live, they tell me the vacancy has gone. I am happy to do any job, except be a policeman. I hate the police. As soon as they see blacks or Arabs, they just try and cause trouble." [8] Bilal (29), a civil servant, said, “Even in the civil service, we are victimized. We have to work twice as hard as white French people. That’s the problem with France – institutional racism. I don’t approve of the violence … We demand equality of opportunity. The police did nothing to stop those kids running 1,000 meters to their deaths at an electricity sub-station. If they want peace, we need justice. Respect must be mutual.”

Sadek (31) has a secondary school education. But he knows his options are limited. He told a BBC reporter, “With a name like mine, I can’t have a sales job.”

Yazid Sabeg is a rarity among France’s business elite. His father, an Algerian worker, came to France in 1952. Young Yazid studied hard and worked as a civil servant before setting up his own finance company. He told a BBC reporter, "A lot of people don’t like my face. Doors are closed when you are an Arab." [9]

Investigative journalist Christophe Deloire said. “The only Arab entrepreneurs you are likely to meet run corner shops." [10]

A 1997 study “France: Immigration Reform Approved” published in the Migration News showed that in Pantin, a Paris suburb, where most of the 5,000 residents of a housing development called Les Cortilliere are immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and West Africa, have a 40% unemployment rate.[11] The situation has not improved in the last eight years.

Racial discrimination is ‘officially’ banned in France. But a quick look at the people working in any shop or office in France would suggest that the practice is widespread. The impression is confirmed by official statistics. Unemployment among people of French origin is 9.2%. Among those of foreign origin, the figure is much higher (more than 40% in many Arab and African neighborhoods). The pressure group SOS Racisme regularly highlights cases of employers discarding applicants with foreign names. It says such discrimination is particularly rife in the retail and hospitality industries – but also for jobs involving no contact with the public. "Some companies believe that to be responsible for marketing you must have roots in mainland France over several generations to understand the French consumer attitudes," according to a recent SOS Racisme report. [12]

Harassment: Mehmet Altun (15), a teenager, told a BBC reporter, “The police come and hassle us all the time. They ask us for our papers 10 times a day. They treat us like delinquents – especially [Interior Minister Nicolas] Sarkozy. That’s not the answer. It would be good to have youth clubs and other places to go – then there would be less trouble.”

In 2002 Abdel and Mohamed Djaiziri bought a small supermarket chain in one of bleakest of these estates, Les Pyramides – named after one of Paris’ glitziest areas. They turned the supermarket, affiliated to the Franprix chain, into a halal shop. But the mayor felt the move contributed to creating a ghetto by making life difficult for non-Muslims, and tried to get the store closed on health grounds. The Djaiziri brothers’ problems got even worse in early 2003, when Franprix stopped supplying them. Their experience – as well as Mr. Sabeg’s and the general scarcity of immigrant entrepreneurs in France – helps explain why some Muslim businessmen feel as marginalized as ghetto youths. [13]

Concluding Remarks:

In the 1980s my father visited Europe few times as a tourist. While he enjoyed the wonderful tourist sites, his impression was that the French people were probably the most racist people in terms of their attitude towards language. As a tourist in Paris, he would sometimes get lost and ask for direction in English to go to certain places. Even if they knew English, they won’t speak in any language but French, and thus ignored him. It was a painful experience for him. The next time, when he toured and got lost in Paris, he asked for direction in Bengali (his mother tongue). Pleasantly, that worked. Some French guys, out of empathy or whatever, stopped by and helped him with direction in English.

While one may argue that such personal accounts are inadequate to understand a country or its people, it nevertheless confirms similar stories that one can hear or read about how the French people always wanted to have it their way. [14] To them, everything is kosher if it is done the French way; only the civilized people speak in French; that is, if you cannot speak French, you are a savage! Such an arrogant attitude is a sure recipe for disaster in a world that is increasingly becoming global and multicultural.

Professor Alec Hargreaves of the Florida State University is the author of "Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in Contemporary France.” When asked recently by the PBS TV to comment upon problems faced by Muslims and other immigrants in France, he said, “These problems are rooted in deep-seated social inequalities, problems of discrimination and it should be said, political neglect."

Alexis Debat (a contributing editor to the National Interest and a consultant for ABC News) echoed the sentiment: “Today a French Muslim has one-eighth to one-tenth the chance of a non-Muslim French national with a non-Muslim name to get a job. I mean, there is a pervasive, very dark racism in French society that associates the second generation Muslims, these second generation immigrants with trouble. … And that’s what these riots are about. They’re about the lack of trust in the French government by these people — the lack of trust in the French elite to make a difference. Today there is no organization or institution to channel this anger because those political parties have been totally discredited.”

So, I am not surprised with the accounts reported by the BBC and PBS reporters. These accounts once again show that the riots in France are signs of a highly dysfunctional society that has not learned to modify its old colonial arrogance. Hypocrisy has become an ingrained state policy. In the name of secularism, it has created Europe’s worst ghetto society of the 21st century, which forces 10% of its population, to be treated like sewage rats. Everything that is to do with the integration and discrimination has been set aside. The republic’s much-touted values: liberty, fraternity and equality are only in signboards and posters, but don’t have any practical meaning for millions of immigrants and their French-born children. Muslim girls and women are banned from covering their hair in public schools, but no eyebrows are raised for Christian students displaying crosses.[15] A quarter of the educational institutions is run by the Catholic Church, with large sums of money pouring from the secular state fund. Through its actions, France has repeatedly shown that she is against multiculturalism, pluralism and basic human rights of the ‘other’ people.

While in recent days, curfew has been imposed and state emergency law implemented in many cities to quell violence altogether, it is unlikely that France would be able to shred its image as a failed liberal democracy that alienated its ‘other’ people. Not soon anyway.

French leaders ought to know that they cannot claim to be a just or fair society when there is such an awful rate of unemployment (45%), discrimination and harassment of minorities. People would have difficulty swallowing the French pill of secularism as a model for a JUST society.

Is there a model that the secular fanatics in France could copy to get out of this self-created quagmire? Yes, there are quite a few that I could suggest. How about learning a thing or two from the USA to see how a multi-cultural society functions with its diverse people from various ethnic and national backgrounds all contributing to creating a vibrant society that embodies the notion of unity in diversity? And this I say, in spite of the failure of President George W. Bush to live up to the higher principles enshrined by the founding fathers of the USA, and his recent regrettable rendezvous with neo-conservatism.

Yes, France needs to copy America to survive; not her Guantanamo, not its Abu Ghraib; not her use of banned chemical weapons (White Phosphorus); but her working model of equality and freedom that definitely sets her at a higher moral plane than France. Just as the US federal programs – like the equal employment opportunity and minority programs – helped the once down-trodden, lynched and tortured Black Americans to climb up the social and economic ladder, so does France need today to ennoble its neglected ‘other’ people with meaningful and well carried out programs that would bring them out of their misery, poverty-stricken and culturally-alienated ghettos and establish them as equal partners in the French society. Marginalization and discrimination would only make things worse.

I am glad to hear President Jacques Chirac admitting that discrimination and inequality (and not polygamy as blamed by his employment minister) were feeding the rebellion of young people in deprived suburbs.[16] "Whatever our origins, we are all the children of the republic, and we can all expect the same rights," he said. I only wish that his government would now take the necessary initiatives that would effectively remove the sense of alienation and deprivation away from its discriminated and marginalized immigration community. The sooner the better!


[1]. Timeline: French riots, BBC News Internet site

[3]. See this author’s article – Jerusalem Summit Neocon conspiracy against the Muslim World.

[4]. Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter belonged to Hitler’s inner circle. He was brought into the party by Rosenberg in early 1920. On November 9 1923, a column of several thousands Nazis led by standard-bearers left Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller to march across the city to the Bavarian War Ministry – the first steps of a march to Berlin and seizing power. Hitler was marching silently, at the head of the column, supported by Ludendorff and Scheubner Richter. He took Scheubner Richter’s arm, an uncharacteristic gesture of seeking support. At the Odeonsplatz they came up against a police cordon beside the Bavarian War Memorial. A shot rang out, followed by an exchange of fire. Scheubner Richter was the first to fall dead, pulling Hitler down, and wrenching his arm out of joint. Göring was shot in the leg. Hitler later had the flag that had headed the march soaked in the blood of the 14 Nazis killed at Odeonsplatz. He made the annual commemoration of the march the central image of Nazi sacrifice. But of the 14 dead, Hitler said: "all are replaceable, but for one: Scheubner Richter."

[5]. See this author’s Pipes, Poll and Paranoia, Weekly Holiday.




[9]. French Muslims face job discrimination, BBC News, November 2, 2005,

[10]. ibid.




[14]. See, e.g., the BBC website referred earlier about reader’s comments about French riots.

[15]. See this author’s “French ban on Hijab sends a wrong message.”

[16]. France’s employment minister Gérard Larcher on Tuesday (Nov. 15) fingered polygamy as one reason for the rioting in the country. He said multiple marriages among immigrants was one reason for the racial discrimination which ethnic minorities faced in the job market. Overly large polygamous families sometimes led to anti-social behavior among youths who lacked a father figure, making employers wary of hiring ethnic minorities, he explained. ( Rather than taking the blame for French government’s deliberate policy of ghettoization of the minority population, it tries to put the onus on the victim. Such remarks are offensive, immoral and reprehensible.