Autopsy of Unrest
Interview for the Paris Times, N)13, November 2006, page 9.
In a new book, sociologist Sebastian Roché scrutinizes the various mechanisms at play behind last fall’s riots.
In a book published last month, Le frisson de l’émeute : violences urbaines et banlieues (or The Thrill of the Riot: Urban Violence and the Suburbs), sociologist Sebastian Roché scrutinizes the various mechanisms at play behind last fall’s riots: the nature of the violence, the profile of the rioters, the role of the media, the political response, the work of the police. His conclusion is straightforward: although France witnessed the worst riots in its recent history, nothing has been done to prevent another outburst.
Is it possible to compare the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois to that of Brixton, in Great Britain, or Los Angeles?
There are many differences, the main one being that in France there was no interracial or interethnic confrontation. In Clichy, the police did not intervene directly, as in the Rodney King case: they showed up and the three children fled and hid in a substation where two of them died of electrocution. After that, the youths gathered spontaneously, like in L.A., burnt cars, and targeted the police.
Did you find a religious dimension to the riots?
I know that in the United States the unrest was often presented as Muslim riots, but neither the religious nor the political dimension is important here. The rioters were multi-ethnic: roughly one third of those arrested were of North African origin, one third of Black African, and one third of French or European descent. We did not see any religious symbols, such as the Islamic crescent, and none of the French religious organizations, including Muslim associations, encouraged the riots, on the contrary.
You say there was no political dimension either?
Right. There were no revolutionary symbols or emblems. We didn’t see such classic mottos as the 1968 “CRS SS” [“Intervention Police = German SS”] nor symbols linked to the Middle East like the keffieh [black and white Palestinian scarf]. The targets that were destroyed had no symbolic political values: they burnt a gym, a grammar school, a car dealership, and private cars. Usually during a political confrontation, leaders claim something and use violence to push for it. That’s not the case here. The targets were ones of convenience, simply within reach.
Then how do you interpret the unrest?
It’s important to note that the economic factor alone does not explain why a riot occurs at a certain moment and in this case, there was little looting. What we saw is an outburst of anger and frustration, triggered by two very strong emotions: first, the death of two children [October 27] and then, the police smoke grenade that landed in a mosque, right at the end of Ramadan [October 30]. The rioters were not engaged in a long-term political struggle—delinquency is a short-term thing: it is instant joy and pleasure, that’s why my book is entitled “The Thrill of the Riot.”
This analysis contradicts what Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said, that the riots were organized.
If the riots had been organized, then the French police would have been defeated. In fact, small groups of friends or neighborhood gangs did not try to get together and organize. They are rivals and isolated from one another. They are not political parties or unions! There was a geographic contamination: a group launched an attack, people from nearby towns joined in, and when they got home they transmitted the riot virus: thus, the riots developed from East to West in the Ile de France region.
[ 08/12/2007 ]
In your book, you indicate that police inadequacy and the bad relationship between them and people living in these neighborhoods as key factors to the riot.
There is very limited trust between the police and the [suburban] population. The police, mostly white officers, stop minorities to check IDs twice as much as they stop whites. But you can’t talk about discrimination against minorities because officially in France minorities do not exist! [Ethnic statistics are forbidden by law. See The Paris Times N°05]. Last year, the population in Clichy turned against the police even though the police didn’t directly kill the children. People see the police as an invading army that enters the neighborhood and controls it by checking people’s IDs. These ID checks often look like military checkpoints, with people being pushed down on the ground as if they were carrying a bomb, as if they were in Iraq. If this were happening to executives in the middle of Paris, they would be angry too. Furthermore, Nicolas Sarkozy thinks that the role of the police is to arrest a maximum number of offenders. He advocates a confrontational approach. Notions of public service, quality of service, legitimacy of arrests, and good relationships with citizens are not taken into account anymore.
Would you say that’s because the authorities don’t understand these neighborhoods?
Yes. There is a deep lack of knowledge of the suburbs and the minorities. The suburbs are still not on the political agenda! I would say that this lack of knowledge is partly voluntary because, although Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2002, we had to wait for more than two and a half years to get official statistics—and bad information, in fact—about urban violence. When you hear the Minister of Interior say “understanding is already excusing,” you get what the problem is.
What has changed in the past year?
We went backward. We witnessed the worst unrest in our contemporary history and yet we haven’t realized it. There was no national debriefing or questioning about the police system. On the contrary, the Interior Minister accused the judiciary, the media, and the public education system of not doing their jobs! The French police—140,000 men—were not only associated with the start of the riots because of its bad relationship with minorities, but also couldn’t contain the unrest. Nobody asks how can the police operate in these neighborhoods; how can we fight police discrimination; how can we recruit among minorities; how do we deal with the arrests, etc.
Are you saying the conditions are still ripe for new riots?
Nothing has changed. I am not a medium, but the key element here—the bad relationship between the police and minorities—is still present. After the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, more Hispanic officers were hired in the police force; in Great Britain, in 1981, people started to ask questions about ethnic segregation, but in France, not even a parliamentary committee was set up for such a huge event as last year’s riots!
Sebastian Roché. 2006. Le frisson de l’émeute : violences urbaines et banlieues. Paris: Seuil. 221 pages, €16.
Sebastien Roché is a senior researcher at the CNRS (National Centre for Science and Research) and professor at the Institute for Political Science in Grenoble. His research fields include fear and governance of crime, juvenile delinquency, the police, and minorities.