Beware of those who offer a simple explanation of the riots that have exploded in multi-racial suburbs across France.
These are not, for the most part, political riots — although they are influenced by, and will dangerously inflame, the poisonously divided politics of France.
They are not religious riots. Many of the very young rioters may have a sense of besieged Muslim identity, but they are driven by anger rather than their religion. This is an insurrection, not an intifada.
They are not, properly speaking, truly race riots. The great majority of the many millions of hard-working residents of the racially mixed suburbs which surround French cities are not involved.
Rather, they are the main victims of the destruction of cars, buses, trams, schools, libraries, shops and social centers which began after a 17-year-old boy was shot dead by a traffic cop in Nanterre, just west of Paris, last Tuesday. Parents and other adults are now beginning (belatedly) to try to contain this explosion of violence by young men and boys as young as 12.
The riots are, in a sense, anti-France; but they are also, in part, mimetically French. Grievances go more rapidly to the street in France than in other countries.
The worst excesses of the largely white, provincial Yellow Vests movement in 2018-19 came close in blind violence to what we have seen in the last week.
The riots are, for sure, anti-police and anti-authority. Young men of African and North African origin are much more likely to be stopped by French police than young white men.
Seventeen people, mostly of African or North African origin, have been shot dead in the last 18 months after refusing to obey police orders to halt their cars.
The last big explosion in the suburbs, or banlieues, lasted for three weeks in October-November 2005. The new eruption shows some signs of abating after only six days but has already crossed new boundaries.
The 2005 riots were confined to the suburbs themselves. There were attacks on buildings and public transport but little direct confrontation with police. There was almost no looting and pillaging. On this occasion, police have been attacked with fireworks, Molotov cocktails and shotguns. Shops and shopping centers have been raided.
The rioting has pierced the invisible barrier between the inner suburbs and prosperous French cities — although a threatened attack on the Champs Elysées in Paris on Saturday night came to little.
The opportunistic looting appears mostly to be the work of the very young. The more targeted violence — including an attack by a blazing car on the home of a mayor in the south Paris suburbs on Saturday night — is more organized and more obscurely political.
There are convincing reports of the involvement of the ultra-left, mostly white, Black Bloc movement which has tried to establish links with suburban youth in recent years.
But this remains largely an insurrection without aims: a scream of fury, an anarchic rejection of even local forms of government; an act of gang-warfare writ large; a competition in performative destruction between disaffected young men in suburbs and towns across France.
The other great and menacing difference with 2005 is the national political background. Eighteen years ago, France was a country dominated by the traditional parties of the center-right and center-left. No prominent politicians encouraged the riots. Few sought to profit from them by suggesting that France faced racial or religious civil war.
Now French politics is split three ways between a radical left, President Emmanuel Macron’s muddled, reformist center and a hard and far right that thinks in explicitly racial terms.
The hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and some of his closest allies have infuriated even other left-wing politicians by refusing to condemn the riots, even the looting.
“I don’t call for calm, I call for justice,” Mélenchon said (despite the fact that the policeman who inexplicably shot 17-year-old Nahel last Tuesday has already been charged with homicide).
Meanwhile, a powerful but divided far right is pressing Macron to crack down violently on the rioters (despite the fact that another death, however accidental, could send the riots into an uncontrollable new dimension).
The teenagers on the streets are almost all French — not immigrants. And yet Marine Le Pen’s rival Eric Zemmour — echoed by editorials in the usually more careful center-right Le Figaro — has spoken of a “war” with “foreign enclaves in our midst.”
This inflammatory language is not new. Le Pen, Zemmour and others habitually refuse to recognize that the multi-racial suburbs contain millions of hard-working people — mostly French-born — without whom the prosperous cities could not survive.
They also refuse to recognize the substantial evidence of brutality and racial discrimination by the French police in their admittedly thankless work in the banlieues.
The boy shot dead in Nanterre was not yet born at the time of the 2005 riots. A new generation of young people has grown up in the last 18 years in the suspicion, or belief, that much of the rest of France will never accept them as French.
Many of those French people will look at the events of the last week and their prejudices and fears will be confirmed or deepened.
The riots will abate in time. Over €4 billion has already been spent to improve life in the banlieues in the last two decades. More will doubtless be found to try to reverse the orgy of self-harm of the last week. It is harder to see what can reverse the spiral of suspicion, misunderstanding, rejection and fear.
John Lichfield for Politico