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Color-blind racism in France: bias against ethnic minority immigrants.


Immigration from former colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa has had a significant effect on France's demographic composition. That nation now has the largest Muslim population in Europe and conflicts involving ethnic minority populations have increased dramatically. In 2004, the French parliament adopted a law prohibiting female students from wearing headscarves in public schools. In 2010, a law was passed that prohibits women from wearing face-covering veils in public places. Both measures have been highly controversial. Many Muslim women interpret their religion to require scarves and veils in public. France's anti-veil laws have, at minimum, a discriminatory effect on Muslim women based on their ethnicity, religion, color, and national origin.

The French veil laws would not be permitted in America, as they would violate American antidiscrimination laws and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects the free exercise of religion. The French justify the veil law with the doctrine of laicite ("secularism"), which prohibits the display of conspicuous religious symbols in public places. The laws are also grounded in principles of French Republicanism, which discourage the assertion of separate ethnic identities. Social integration for immigrants is conditioned on assimilation and a renunciation of an individual's origins, faith, and customs.

The effects of discriminatory practices are not limited to Muslim women. A large proportion of France's "visible minorities" are segregated into public housing complexes in the suburban communities, known as banlieues (suburbs that surround French cities). The banlieues are geographically isolated and ethnically distinct from the surrounding communities. Many public housing complexes in the banlieues are neglected and physically deteriorating. Poverty, substandard schools, low-levels of educational attainment, crime, and unemployment are common features of these neighborhoods.

Young banlieusards (banlieue residents) are stereotyped as gang members, criminals, and potential terrorists. They are otherized as "immigrants" even though many of them arc second and third generation citizens born in France. Banlieusards are routinely targeted by police who abuse and harass them using the pretext of identity checks. These discriminatory practices treat the young men as second-class citizens and impinge on their rights to freedoms of movement and privacy. Police brutality inflicted on banlieusards provoked large-scale riots in 1983, the 1990s, and 2005.

Racial and ethnic categories are not officially recognized in France. The French census does not disaggregate data by race or ethnicity, because French laws prohibit officials from doing so. France is officially color-blind. A similar form of color-blind policymaking has become the ideology to which most American hites subscribe. They acknowledge that there remains some discrimination against African Americans and other minorities, but it is not as severe as it was in in the past and is no longer an obstacle to minority progress. Many American whites view conditions in impoverished, inner city communities as a cultural phenomenon resulting from dysfunctional families, a lack of values, and a poor work ethic. Lingering vestiges of Jim Crow, such as all black schools in segregated neighborhoods, are believed to result from the private choices of individuals rather than discrimination in America's housing markets. Scholars have labeled these attitudes "color-blind racism" because African Americans, Latinos, and other racial minorities still suffer from significant levels of discrimination that is masked by race-neutral justifications. (1)

This Article will show that France's race-neutral policies do not prevent the bias and discrimination caused by "color-blind racism." It examines laws, policies, and practices that disadvantage ethnic minorities in France. Part I examines migration from former French colonies in Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Part II analyzes the impact of Orientalist stereotypes on the development of immigration policies. Part III discusses the negative reaction to the growth of France's ethnic minority population. Part IV explores the causes and effects of segregation in the suburban communities that surround French cities. Part V examines the causes of riots that erupted in the banlieues. Part VI examines the efficacy of French antidiscrimination laws. Part VII explores the "ethnic penalty," which denotes employment discrimination against ethnic minorities. Part VIII discusses the academic achievement problems of children from immigrant families. Part IX traces the development of the headscarf and burqa bans. Part X analyzes religious dress under American Constitutional law. The final section, Part XI, examines the veil controversies that have generated heated debates at national and international levels.

An expanding body of literature is focusing on the veil debates in France. This Article puts those debates in a broader context by analyzing immigration policies; the effects of discrimination in housing, employment, and education; and the influence of internalized stereotypes. Race and ethnicity are important but largely unacknowledged aspects of the immigration debate among French officials who contend that race does not exist in France. However, the term "immigrant" has become a shorthand reference to ethnic minorities who are harshly criticized for failing to assimilate French values and traditions. This is particularly so in the case of Muslims, as many consider Islam to be incompatible with French values. Ethnic minorities are treated as permanent etrangeres ("strangers") unworthy of acceptance by the majority population. The problem is not that North and sub-Saharan Africans refuse to integrate into French society--the reality is France won't allow them to do so.


France has a long history of immigration. In the nineteenth century, during the height of the industrial revolution, France experienced severe labor shortages. (2) The first North African migrant workers came to France in 1871. (3) By 1911, three thousand North Africans worked in France. (4) That number rose to thirty thousand in the years before World War I. (5) During World War I, France enlisted over five-hundred thousand sub-Saharan and North African troops in the armed forces, and more than two-hundred thousand colonial workers from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and Mali. (6) During World War II, eighty thousand North and sub-Saharan African troops fought for France against Germany. (7) After the war, Algerians were awarded French citizenship. (8)

French perceptions of the North Africans that joined French society as laborers and soldiers are rooted in Orientalism, the country's colonial past, and the independence movements of France's former colonies. (9) The expansion of France into Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century was justified on the grounds of mission civilisatrice ("civilizing mission"), which was aimed at educating less civilized people in the far reaches of the world. (10) The colonialist rhetoric promoting the civilizing mission appealed to national pride, the glory of French civilization, and the superiority of Christianity over Islam. Jules Ferry, the influential Minister for Public Instruction in the late nineteenth century, was a prominent proponent of the civilizing missions. In a speech made to the French Chamber of Deputies, he said,
   Gentlemen, we must speak more loudly and more honestly!
   We must say openly that indeed the higher races have a right
   over the lower races ... I repeat, that the superior races have a
   right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize
   the inferior races.... (11)

The colonial society established by the French in Africa created two distinct communities: a superior caste consisting of French settlers and an inferior one consisting of Africans. (12) One of the underlying assumptions of the republican model is that immigrants should not be culturally different from white French citizens as they gain citizenship. (13) One of the elements of the assimilation strategy consisted of encouraging Muslim women to stop wearing headscarves. (14) The republican model is premised on a concept of citizenship that rejects the notion of individual difference based on religion, ethnicity, or race. Assimilation of colonial subjects required indigenous populations to abandon their origins, faith, customs, and languages. (15) The cultural norms advocated by the republican model consisted of a combination of French language, values, and traditions. (16)

Prior to World War II, non-Europeans were a small proportion of France's foreign-born population. (17) North Africans moved to France where they worked for a few years and then returned home. When they returned they were often replaced by a friend or relative from the same village establishing what became known as the "rotation" system. (18) This changed dramatically after World War II. When the war ended in 1945, the French government capitalized on cheap immigrant labor to reconstruct infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the conflict. (19) France enacted immigration policies that were designed to facilitate the reconstruction of the economy and increase population growth. (20) The National Office of Immigration ("ONI") was created and began authorizing three different types of residence permits: temporary, ordinary, and privileged. (21) Ethnic quotas were not included in a 1945 immigration ordinance, but ONI encouraged European immigration and discouraged African and Asian migrants. (22) Despite these efforts, the fastest growing immigrant populations in France came from the "Maghreb," the western part of North Africa, consisting of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. (23) The Maghrebi population grew from 2 percent of France's foreign population in 1946 to 39 percent in 1982, which made this group the fastest growing immigrant population. (24) The primary "pull" factor for these immigrants was the opportunity for economic advancement through employment in construction and factories in France. (25) In the mid-1950s, France experienced another labor shortage. (26) This led to a dramatic increase in immigrant communities in the 1960s. (27)

The independence movements in French colonies also significantly affected the nation's demographics. Independence was granted to French Indochina in 1954 and to French colonies in West and Central Africa in 1960. (28) In 1956, France granted independence to Morocco and Tunisia, leaving Algeria as its only colony in the Maghreb. (29)

During Algeria's colonization, almost one million white persons of French descent resided there. Under President Charles de Gaulle the government granted Algeria independence in 1958. Some of the pied noirs ("black foot" French citizens of European descent who lived in Algeria) created the Organisation d'Armee Secrete ("OAS") to fight against independence. (30) They wanted Algeria to retain its status as a French colony. The organization mounted an often violent, but ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the French government that included assassination attempts against President de Gaulle. (31) After OAS dissolved, Algerians continued to fight against the remaining French settlers. (32) After a massacre that killed more than three thousand French settlers, the majority of those remaining returned to France. (33) In 1962, Algeria was finally granted independence. (34) By the 1980s, Maghrebis represented approximately 30 percent of France's total immigrant population, making them the largest non-European minority in France. (35)


French attitudes about Maghrebian immigrants are rooted in Orientalist stereotypes. In The Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott examined French racism and explained how this racism informs French attitudes about immigrants. (36) These attitudes are derived from colonialist traditions and "Orientalism": ideological biases about cultures in regions designated by Europeans as the Orient. (37) The term "Oriental" in this context denotes generalizations and stereotypes that cross many cultural and national boundaries. (38) It essentializes a prototypical Oriental as one who is biologically inferior, exotic, and culturally backward. (39) A major component of French culture is the conviction that its culture is superior to those of all non-Europeans. In what many consider to be the canonical text, Orientalism, Edward W. Said argued that since the beginning of Western civilization, Europeans have regarded Asian and Middle Eastern people as an alien and threatening "other." (40) This version of the Arab world constructed by British and French scholars provided a justification for the colonization of Africa and the Middle East. (41) Eighteenth and nineteenth century European scholars created a condescending and essentialist view of the Arab world that was not based on any actual knowledge or experience with Arabs, but rather on the product of imaginary constructions. (42)

Attitudes about Orientalism were manifested in various ways. Many nineteenth century Orientalist paintings were propaganda used to support French imperialism. They depicted the East as a place of backwardness, lawlessness, and barbarism tamed by French rule. (43) Antoine-Jean Gros, a painter employed by Napoleon Bonaparte who never traveled to Africa or Asia himself, conveyed these ideas in paintings featuring Eastern architecture and individuals in exotic dress. (44) Artists such as Eugene Delacroix employed themes that portrayed women as objects of violence and cruelty in their Oriental settings. (45)

This subtle indoctrination has profoundly affected modern racism in France. Over the last two decades, a substantial body of empirical and theoretical work in cognitive psychology has confirmed that the causes of discriminatory actions often operate at an unconscious level without the perpetrator's awareness of the source. (46) Many ideas and beliefs formed during early childhood serve as a basis for judgments about events, groups, and ideas during one's adult years. (47) Socialized beliefs can provoke negative sentiments when individuals' decisionmaking activates stereotypes. (48) Stereotyping involves the creation of a mental image of a "typical" member of a particular category. (49) Individuals are perceived as undifferentiated members of a group, lacking any significant differences from other individuals within the group. (50) Common traits are assigned to the entire group. When a particular behavior by a group member is observed, the viewer evaluates the behavior through the lens of the stereotype. (51) This process causes the viewer to conclude that the conduct has empirically confirmed his stereotyped belief about the group. Stereotypes can be so deeply internalized that they persist even in the face of information that directly contradicts the stereotype. (52)

The imagery of Orientalism is suffused with stereotypes of European superiority. Oriental men are often depicted as feminine and weak, but dangerous because their hypersexuality poses a threat to white, Western women. (53) Oriental women are depicted as submissive and strikingly exotic. The Orient is seen as eccentric, backward, and sensual. (54) European writers describing the Middle East reinforced an image of Arabs and Muslims as uniform, incompetent, and unreflective. This Orient was a creation of the Western imagination. (55)

The Orientalists promoted specific stereotypes about Arabs--including racial inferiority, Islamic fanaticism, and unbridled sexuality--that promoted a caricatured vision of the East. (56) A French study published in 1903 described Algerians as having limited intelligence and being backwards and apathetic. (57) It also said that they were undisciplined, dishonest, untrustworthy, and oversexed. (58) For much of the twentieth century, French advertisements, newspaper articles, and novels emphasized the exoticism of North Africans. (59) As Joan Scott explained "a consensus [emerged] about the inferiority and/or strange customs and behaviors of North Africans." (60)

During the colonial era and well into the twentieth century, Orientalist representations of Arab women fell into two predominant stereotypes. One consisted of prostitutes and women with loose morals. (61) The second is that of the "harem," in which multiple women were cloistered and treated as submissive slaves by their husbands. (62) Some of the most popular Orientalist paintings depict harems. (63) Male artists relying largely on their imaginations, depicted opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques in the nude or in Oriental dress. (64) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres never traveled to the East, for example, but used the harem setting to present an erotic ideal in his voluptuous odalisques. (65)

In French literature, Orientalist fantasies depicted Arab women as being driven by their sexual desires. One example of this fantasy is demonstrated by postcards that depicted Algerian women and circulated in France in the early decades of the twentieth century. (66) Although the photographs purported to be accurate depictions, they were actually posed in a photographer's studio. (67) The photographs were seen as evidence of the exotic and strange customs of Algerians when, in reality, they reflected colonialist fantasies. (68) The stories and photographs were efforts to peer into Arab women's private spaces. (69) Colonized women were depicted as morally corrupt, ignorant, or promiscuous individuals in need of the colonizers' guidance to carry out their daily activities. Colonizers used these images to legitimize their colonial administration and to control indigenous women. (70)

Orientalist stereotypes of this sort continue to shape French attitudes about North African immigrants and their descendants. As the discussion in subsequent sections of this Article will show, ethnic minorities are routinely denied employment opportunities and are subjected to what has been described by scholars as the "ethnic penalty" that job seekers encounter. (71) Young banlieusards are widely regarded as criminals and subjected to harassment and harsh treatment by the French police. (72) Islamic dress such as headscarves and burqas are regarded as threats to French society. (73) These stereotypes are derived from beliefs developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during which North Africans were regarded as inferior, dishonest and untrustworthy. (74) Today, these stereotypes persist and have a profound effect on the lived experiences of ethnic minorities in France.


[I]f you were a French worker, who worked along with your wife and together earned 15,000 francs and you lived in public housing next to a man with three or four wives, twenty children, who took home 50,000 francs a month from welfare, without working. And if in addition, you had to deal with the noise and the smell, well the French worker goes crazy.

--Jacques Chirac, former President of France (75)

Chirac's contemptuous comments reflect the sentiments of a large portion of the French population. A majority of French citizens resent the presence of ethnic minority immigrants in France. (76) A 2013 survey showed that 70 percent of the French population believes too many foreigners reside in the country. (77) Since the mid-1970s, France has attempted to stem the tide of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa. (78) This change in policy was adopted after the 1973 oil crisis and the end of the "trente glorieuses" (79) in an economic recession that dampened the need for foreign labor. (80) This resulted in high levels of unemployment. (81) In 1974, under the government headed by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, France officially suspended immigration. (82) There were exceptions to this policy, but it was expected that the immigration of non-Europeans would decrease, but in reality, the policy had the opposite effect. (83) Rather than slowing the influx immigrants, migration shifted from individual male workers to family reunification. (84) Migrants moved to France in large numbers to join family members who were already there, contributing significantly to immigration from 1970 to 2000. (85) The French government attempted to impose a ban on family reunifications, but that effort was declared unlawful. (86) The French government made efforts to reduce the numbers of non-Europeans immigrating to France by encouraging immigrants to return to their home countries; many were forcibly deported. (87) This policy led to an increase in the minority population as many non-European immigrants feared losing access to jobs in France if they left the country. Many who might have left remained and brought their families to live with them in France. The result was an increase in France's ethnic minority population as many workers had large families and, in some cases, multiple wives. The informal "rotation" system ended. (88)

In his 2007 book, Alex Hargreaves reported that approximately one hundred thousand foreigners became French citizens each year. (89) More than half of the foreigners who applied for citizenship were of African origin. About half of the foreigners were admitted through formal citizenship procedures. (90) The remaining foreigners were divided between foreigners who acquired citizenship through marriage to a French spouse and the children of foreign parents born in France who became French citizens when they reach the age of majority. (91) As of 1993, children of immigrants do not automatically become citizens upon reaching the age of majority but are required to formally request citizenship. (92)

Immigration has been a potent political issue since the 1980s through, among other things, the influence of the National Front. (93) This far right political party was founded on October 5, 1972, by activists of the nationalist movement Ordre Nouveau ("New Order"), attempting an electoral come-back for the French extreme right. (94) Jean-Marie Le Pen was chosen as president of the new movement, an ex-paratrooper who served in in the French Foreign Legion. He was a former president of the Nationalist Students' Association of Paris. (95)

The National Front's agenda consists of racist and xenophobic attacks on immigrants. (96) The party has attracted a significant portion of the French electorate with its demagogic demands to deport Muslim immigrants. A cornerstone of its agenda is the "France for the French" slogan. The policies associated with the National Front include ending further immigration and making it increasingly harder for the foreigners already in France to get their citizenship. (97) Le Pen pledged an immediate end to all immigration and to send all foreigners home. Le Pen consistently related the influx of foreigners to unemployment and crime. (98) The success of the National Front is based on its ability to attract and influence voters who support other political parties. (99) This is one of the reasons immigration has remained a hotly contested issue since the 1980s. (100) In April 2002, Le Pen shocked the political establishment when he won 16.9 percent of the vote in the first round of voting in the French presidential election. This left him only three percentage points behind the incumbent right-wing candidate, President Jacques Chirac, who received only 19.9 percent of the vote. The outcome of Le Pen's performance in 2002 surpassed the 1988 vote, in a clear showing that the National Front has only gained popularity over time. (101)

France's left and right wing political parties have turned immigration into political football since the 1980s. (102) After national elections, each newly installed government has attempted to modify legislation enacted by the previous administration. (103) Major reforms were enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the hi Bonnet which was enacted on January 10, 1980 by a right-wing government, the hi Bonnet authorized officials to deport undocumented migrants. (104) In 1981, after a new government took office, limited amnesty was granted for undocumented immigrants who entered France prior to January 1, 1981, and had proof of employment. (105) The "Pasqua laws" of 1993, named after interior minister Charles Pasqua, attempted to dramatically limit immigration by prohibiting foreign graduates from accepting French jobs and denying the graduates resident status. (106) The law increased the waiting period for family reunification and denied residency permits to foreign spouses who had been in the country without legal authorization prior to marrying. (107) The laws of 1993 were so restrictive that illegal migration increased. The drastic reduction in legal avenues to immigration caused migrants to resort to extra-legal means to enter France. (108) As a response, the hi Debre was implemented on April 24, 1997, but proved to be as restrictive as earlier laws. (109) The right-wing government was defeated in 1997 and, on May 11, 1998, the newly elected leftist government enacted a law governing the status of foreigners that relaxed immigration restrictions imposed by the previous administration (110) In 2006, an immigration and integration law was enacted, which overhauled France's immigration system and gave the government powers to encourage high-skilled migration, fight illegal migration more effectively, and restrict family immigration. (111) The effort to enact the law was led by Nicolas Sarkozy, the then Interior Minister. (112) The law's objectives were to recruit skilled workers, facilitate foreign students' residencies, tighten the rules on family reunification, and limit access to residence and citizenship. (113)

France's efforts to control immigration have failed. At some point, France will have to accept the reality of an increasingly diverse population. The immigration laws do not recognize the nation's current demographic composition. As one researcher explained, "[i]n 1999, France's resident population of foreign or partially foreign origin (immigrants or persons born in France with at least one immigrant parent or grandparent) represented around 13.5 million people, equivalent to between a quarter and a fifth of the total population." (114) The immigration laws fail to recognize the nation's current demographic composition. France's ethnic minority population does not consist entirely of first-generation immigrants. Many residents with North and sub-Saharan ancestors are second and third-generation French citizens. The government has made continuous efforts to keep North and sub-Saharan African immigrants out while failing to address the needs of the French nationals with African ancestry. The conflicts involving ethnic minorities are as much matters of domestic policy as they are immigration issues. The French government must recognize and address this if it expects to ameliorate racial tensions in France.


Paris and other large cities in France are surrounded by suburban communities in which large numbers of ethnic minority families reside. In Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics and Social Exclusion, Professor Tricia Keaton examined the conditions that prevail in Pantin, a banlieue adjacent to Paris. To underscore the stark contrast with the romantic connotation of Paris as "the City of Light," (115) Keaton designated banlieues symbolically as "the other France." (116) The ethnically segregated cites (public housing complexes) in France are the legacy of government-subsidized housing developed to accommodate workers during Paris' industrialization in the nineteenth century. From the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s, foreign families living in France were not eligible to reside in public housing. (117) During this time, French authorities treated Africans and Maghrebis as temporary residents and discouraged the reunification of immigrant families in France. Discrimination against immigrants was widespread. (118) Many of them were relegated to the shantytowns on the outskirts of French cities without running water or electricity. (119)

In the late 1950s, a government agency was established that constructed hostels for foreign workers. (120) Sonacotra, the National Society of Housing for Workers, also constructed accommodations for migrant workers between 1965 and 1975. (121) The "foyer Sonacotra" provided accommodations for Maghrebis and sub-Saharan Africans from Senegal and Mali. (122) The housing was designed to accommodate single, male migrants in dormitory-like facilities that were not suitable for families. (123) Working in a similar fashion, the government agency, Habitations a Loyer Modere (housing at moderated rents or "HLM"), demolished shantytowns in the 1970s and encouraged the residents to move into HLM-constructed public housing. (124) Families were eligible to live in HLM housing if the head of the family was authorized to live in France and household income was below a threshold based on the region of the residence. (125) Eligible families could "apply for a HLM [unit] in any city where such public programs exist, regardless of their current place of residence or nationality." (126)

Many of the original public housing residents in communities surrounding Paris were French citizens who worked in nearby factories. (127) They were hired in large numbers in the 1960s when the factories needed unskilled labor. (128) The HLM provided centralized housing, shopping, education, and recreation in planned communities close to the factories in which residents worked. (129) In the 1960s and early 1970s, HLM created one hundred and ninety-five planned housing complexes, mostly in Paris. (130) Large housing developments were constructed with a minimum of five hundred units in high-rise towers and low-rise blocks on large land tracts. The intention was to create an attractive, planned community for the working class on the suburban periphery where new factories were being developed and where there was an abundance of open space. (132) The developments were designed to be self-contained neighborhoods with shops, schools, and other services to meet the needs of the residents. (133)

The complexes were inspired by Swiss architect Le Corbusier's "radiant city" designs, in which housing for low-income families consisted of large blocks of individual apartments stacked in a high rise building. (134) The buildings were set on pylons, five meters off the ground, to maximize ground level green space. (135) The floor plans included a living room, bedrooms, kitchen, and garden terrace. (136) Le Corbusier believed his design would provide sunlight and fresh air to city laborers, who had lived in narrow and unsanitary alleys and back streets since the beginning of urbanization in France. (137)

In the 1970s, the French government began to promote home ownership. (138) The government made low-interest loans available to working-class French families living in public housing. As a result many French families moved out of cites. (139) Middle class residents abandoned the housing projects en masse in favor of small bungalows in the suburbs. (140) The "white flight" of French families from the cites was also motivated by a desire to distance themselves from immigrants. (141) North and sub-Saharan African immigrant families moved into public housing at a time when the residences were increasingly being seen as undesirable places to live. These new residents were often poorer than their predecessors and had fewer opportunities for advancement. (142) When immigration was halted in 1975, deindustrialization hit the suburbs much harder and lasted much longer than other areas in France. (143) Service positions replaced industrial jobs. As the factories that provided work shut down, significant demographic shifts ensued. (144) The banlieues slowly transformed into segregated spaces. (145)

Most of the shopping centers built in the centers of the housing projects closed. Smaller stores in and near the complexes experienced high turnover rates. (146) The concrete and pre-fabricated materials used in the construction of the cites deteriorated. (147) By the early 1990s, 80 percent of the buildings suffered "from some combination of water damage, insulation problems, broken elevators, and similar problems." (148) From 1982 to 1999, the proportion of French nationals and immigrants from Europe residing in public housing rose by only 1 percent. (149) Residency rates for non-European immigrants increased by 10 percent and, in some cases, 15 percent. (150) In 1999, a 28 percent gap existed between the residency rates of Maghrebis and French nationals. (151) The differences in residency rates across immigrant groups in 1999 were significant, particularly between Europeans (19.7 percent) and non-Europeans (79.3 percent). (152) Within the immigrant population, Maghrebis and Africans had the highest residency rates at 47.9 percent and 43.5 percent, respectively. (153)

From 1990 to 1999, residential segregation of North and sub-Saharan Africans increased. (154) Researchers found that it was more difficult for these groups to move away from disadvantaged neighborhoods than French nationals. (155) In one study focusing on the Paris region, the authors prepared an index of dissimilarity (156) that showed North and sub-Saharan Africans were concentrated to the north of Paris (in the Seine-Saint-Denis district and the southern part of the Val-d'Oise district) and south of Paris (in the western part of the Val de Marne district). (157) Consequently, the researchers determined that these groups were significantly segregated from French nationals. (158) An even residential mix would require 32 percent of North and sub-Saharan Africans to relocate. (159)

In 2009, France's 4.5 million public housing units represented 17 percent of the country's housing stock. (160) Approximately 55 percent of the public housing was constructed before 1976, including 1.12 million units constructed between 1966 and 1975, when many large HLMs were built on the outer edges of French cities. (161) Immigrant households represented 9.5 percent of the total population in 2002 and they occupied 22 percent of the public housing units. (162) About 29 percent of immigrant households lived in public housing, compared to 14 percent of non-immigrants. (163) Families from Turkey, the Maghreb, and sub-Saharan Africa had much higher percentages: 44 percent, 48 percent and 38 percent, respectively. (164)

The high-rise design of public housing proved to be an urban planning disaster. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the term "banlieue" has become synonymous with French suburban neighborhoods. (165) Powerful stereotypes have been attached to the term "immigration" which alludes to unskilled, non-European workers. (166) The non-European immigrant population is regarded as a threat to national unity and identity. These stereotypes are associated with the banlieues based on the large numbers of immigrants residing in those areas. (167) However, the majority of young banlieusards are French citizens born and raised in France, with little to no connection to the origins of their ancestors. (168)

In Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality, Professor Loic Wacquant compared French banlieues to America's inner city ghettoes. He explained how the decline of America's urban core after the 1960s resulted from private practices and public policies of racial separation and urban abandonment. (169) In France, the spread of banlieues is caused by the decline of working-class communities resulting from deindustrialization, high-levels of unemployment, and the spatial concentration of immigrant families in deteriorating public housing. (170) Wacquant concluded that France's banlieues were not as vast and mono-racial as America's inner city ghettos, but share many of the same negative attributes and deleterious effects on the residents. (171) In his book, Algeria in France, Paul Silverstein observed that public housing originally constructed for factory workers to ease their commutes from home and work "function now as site[s] of spatial isolation, economic exclusion and social containment, reinforcing the physical and mental boundaries between city and suburbs ...," (172)


The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. (173)

--Albert Camus

In 2005, three weeks of riots of unprecedented proportions erupted in several French cities. However, rioting in France's banlieues has been a regular occurrence over the last three decades. Almost all of the incidents were triggered by police officers' mistreatment of young banlieuesards. In the summer of 1981, several women, children, and elderly residents of the Cite de la Cayolle in Marseilles were injured during a police raid. Young male residents retaliated by fire-bombing local shopping centers and police stations. (174) During the same period, the Lyon suburb of Les Minguettes erupted in a series of violent confrontations between young residents and police that became known as the "rodeo riots." (175) In an estimated two hundred and fifty separate "rodeos," groups of young men would steal a car, engage the police in a high-speed chase, and then abandon and burn the vehicle as an act of defiance. (176)

On June 20, 1983, Toumi Djai'dja, the president of SOS Avenir Minguettes, was critically wounded by police officers during a police raid. (177) This episode of police brutality inspired the March for Equality against Racism. (178) A handful of marchers (mostly from the Minguettes) set out from Marseille on October 15, 1983. (179) By the time they arrived in Paris on December 3rd, the march had grown to include approximately one hundred thousand demonstrators. (180) The march received national attention when the President, Francois Mitterrand, received a delegation of marchers at the Elysee Palace. (181) The violent confrontations between Meghrebi descended immigrants and police in the 1980s resulted in the creation of the Beur movement, a nationwide protest against racism. (182) The word Beur was coined by reversing the syllables of the word arabe, which means Arabic or Arab in French and is frequently used to refer to second generation Meghrbins. (183) The leaders of the Beur movement gradually became integrated in the local and national political elites. (184)

Other conflicts erupted in the 1990s. On October 6, 1990, violence broke out in the neighborhood of Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon. (185) A motorbike on which two young men were riding was struck by a police car and one of the young men was killed. (186) Local youths believed that the police intentionally collided with the motorcycle riders and responded by burning cars, looting stores, and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. (187) Officers on the scene used tear gas and truncheons to subdue the rioters. The riots continued for two days before calm was restored. (188)

In 1991, a riot was set off in a low-income suburb after a teenager arrested during weekend rioting died of heart failure while he was in police custody. (189) Aissa Ihich became ill while being transferred from the Mantes-La-Jolic Jail to a court appearance in Versailles. (190) Ihich was taken to the hospital in Mantes-La-Jolie, where he died from asthma related asphyxiation. The death exacerbated tensions in the Paris suburb of Mantes-La-Jolie. (191) Two hours after news of the death circulated, approximately one hundred people gathered at a local shopping center and began hurling rocks at passing police cars. (192) Riot police surrounded the demonstrators but did not intervene. (193) Several young men attacked two journalists leaving the Ihich home after interviewing family members. (194) The journalists suffered minor injuries. (195) Hundreds of youths in the Val Fourre housing project engaged in battles with police. (196) A shopping center was looted and cars were set on fire. (197) Police were attacked with firebombs and baseball bats. Three officers were hurt and eleven alleged rioters were arrested. (198) Similar confrontations took place in Toulouse, Saint-Etiennc, Chanteloup-Les-Vignes, and Lyon in a series of banlieues riots in 1991. (199)

In 2005, the beginning of what became three weeks of rioting erupted on October 2, 2005 when two youngsters in the Parisian suburb Clichy sous Bois were accidentally electrocuted when they entered a transformer house owned by the national electricity company. (200) Nine boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were on their way home from a soccer match. (201) They were crossing a construction site when they saw the police Anti-Crime Brigade. (202) The police ordered the boys to stop and show their identification papers. (203) As the boys had not brought their identification papers with them, they knew they would be taken to the police station for questioning. Hoping to avoid detention, the boys took off and the police went after them. (204)

The police seized six of the boys. The remaining three were cornered against an eight-foot wall topped with barbed wire and bearing large signs that said, "Caution: the electricity is stronger than you" and "Stop, don't risk your life." (205) Pictures of skulls and crossbones were on the signs. (206) The three boys climbed the wall into the substation and searched for an exit. (207) One of the boys touched a transformer, instantly killing himself and a second boy. The third boy was saved by a power surge that cut electricity to the town. The survivor rescaled the wall. When he emerged, he saw that no one was outside because the police had left the area. (208)

For the next three weeks, riots spread like wildfire from suburb to suburb. The turmoil affected hundreds of towns. Images of flaming cars filled news reports as approximately ten thousand cars were torched. Four thousand rioters were arrested and one hundred and twenty-five police officers were wounded. The rioters, many of them teenagers, were mainly of North and West African descent. The government declared the riots over on November 17th, 2005 after the number of cars torched the night before fell below one hundred. (209)

French officials attributed the riots to negative stereotypes about immigrants. Some officials interpreted the riots as an excuse for "delinquents" to engage in violence and destruction. (210) Nicolas Sarkozy, then the Minister of the Interior, described the banlieues as neighborhoods dominated by mafia-like organizations where even the police were afraid to visit. (211) A few days before the 2005 riots, Sarkozy had promised to "clean the suburbs with water hoses" and called the banlieuesards "racaille," a term translated in the media as "scum," but reportedly carries racist connotations. (212) After the riots, the literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov attributed the violence to the dysfunctional sexuality of Muslim youths obsessed with behaving in a "macho" way. (213) One week after the riots, prominent French historian, Helene Carrere d'Encausse, told Russian media that the riots were caused by the polygamous marital practices of Muslim immigrants from West Africa. (214) The French Employment Minister, Gerard Larcher, agreed with d'Encausse and told British media that it was no surprise that young men from polygamous families experienced difficulty finding jobs. (215) Nicholas Sarkozy said "[t]he central cause of unemployment, of despair, of violence in the suburbs is not discrimination or the failure of the schools--it is drug traffic, the law of bands, the dictatorship of fear and the resignation of the Republic." (216)

These disparaging comments exposed the stereotypical attitudes that some prominent French citizens have about ethnic minorities in France. These statements were not the product of any thoughtful reflection or careful research. They were angry outbursts that exposed the racial attitudes of the individuals who made the statements. In Opposing Exclusion: The Political Significance of the Riots in French Suburbs (2005-2007), Matthew Moran evaluated the significance of the banlieue riots. (217) He argued that political discussions about the riots were dominated by security-oriented interpretations that did not look beyond the acts of violence and destruction inflicted by young banlieue residents. (218) The 2005 rioters were not immigrants; many of them were second- and third-generation French citizens. (219) French politicians on the left and the right had long denied that discrimination was a serious problem. Meanwhile, everyday racism persisted with minority citizens being routinely denied jobs, apartments, and access to recreational facilities because of their brown complexions or Middle Eastern names. (220) France's failures resulted from social and economic policies that allowed public officials to fail to address the oppressive conditions of ethnic minorities. (221) Second- and third-generation minority youths are still viewed as "immigrants" and are denied an equal opportunity to participate in French society. (222) Years of police harassment, discrimination and social exclusion generated the acts of rebellion and the intense anger that was reflected in the 2005 riots." (223) The unrest will not end until socio-economic inequalities and ethnic discrimination have been properly addressed." (224)

The 2005 riots bear a remarkable resemblance to American race riots of the 1960s. In 1968, the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, released a report that identified racism as the primary cause of the surge of riots in several American cities in the late 1960s. (225) In particular, the report blamed the racist attitudes of white Americans for more than one hundred and fifty riots that took place between 1965 and 1968. (226) After finding that segregation and poverty had created destructive ghetto environments in many cities, the Commission's report concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white--separate and unequal." (227) The riots in France were triggered by conditions comparable to those in the United States in the 1960s.

One cause of the riots that must be addressed to create lasting change consists of the continuous conflicts involving young banlieusards and the police. In the banlieues, the relationship between police and residents is rooted in distrust, suspicion, and conflict. (228) For many banlieusards, the police represent an oppressive force that poses a constant threat to their well-being (229) French politicians of both the right and the left have exacerbated the problem by expanding police powers to check identity papers, conduct searches, and detain citizens. (230) Repeated identity checks, insults, provocation, and constant suspicion have become part of the daily routine for young people in these areas. (231) The police are viewed as an opposing force that targets and discriminates against the local population rather than as the representatives of justice. (232) A fundamental change in law enforcement methods is needed.
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Title Annotation:Introduction through V. The French Riots, p. 185-215
Author:Ware, Leland
Publication:Washington University Journal of Law & Policy
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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