Young residents of Villiers-le-Bel, a northern Paris suburb, face unseen riot police during clashes on Nov. 26, 2007. Rampaging youths threw Molotov cocktails and set fire to cars in the troubled neighbourhood on the second night of street violence after two local teens were killed in a crash with a police patrol car. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)
Understanding the violence
Last Updated Nov. 28, 2007
Media accounts of the riots that spread across France in the fall of 2005 lay the blame squarely on a racist society that has marginalized the children and grandchildren of North African immigrants.
The violence flared again two years later in neighbourhoods outside Paris, following the deaths of two teens who were killed in a crash with a police patrol car in November 2007.
While there is no denying that racism is a factor in these incidents, we need to dig deeper if we are to understand the violence, immigration experts believe.
"There are many other factors involved," Jeffrey Reitz, a University of Toronto sociology professor who studies ethnicity and immigration, told CBC News Online in the wake of the 2005 riots. "It's not the immigrants, but their children, who are a very different group of people."
Reitz said that, in general, when immigrants compare their situation in their adopted country to the life they left behind, they usually find things are better, even if they are discriminated against. And if things don't improve, they often have the option of returning home.
"The second generation can't go back as easily and have been told in school they should be treated equally. When it doesn't happen, there's disappointment," Reitz said.
Canada's ambassador to France, Claude Laverdure, agreed. "There's a deep frustration of being seen as immigrants for young people who were born in France," Laverdure told CBC Newsworld two years ago.
Could it happen in Canada?
While neither Laverdure nor Reitz denied that racism also exists in Canada, our demographic makeup is different, making such race-based riots less likely.
"The number of second-generation immigrants in Canada is small and the immigrants' children are still young. In France, those communities have been there for quite awhile," Reitz said.
And Laverdure said Canada's immigration system differs from France's system in important ways. "We seek immigrants. We go after people around the world and welcome them…. France does not have such a policy. They simply inherit immigrants," he said.
Many of France's immigrants came in the 1950s and '60s from former colonies such as Algeria, after the collapse of France's African empire.
"They brought them in from the colonies as guest workers to supply the needs of the booming economy. They were unskilled, mostly male labourers, and they were eventually joined by their families," Randall Hansen, a University of Toronto political science professor who studies European immigration, told CBC News Online.
When industrial jobs disappeared, Hansen said, immigrants couldn't make the switch to the service economy. "And their children found themselves poorly adapted to getting jobs. The ethnic minorities concentrated in neighbourhoods where schools weren't as good…. Social mobility is, sadly, a myth, even in this part of the world," he said.
Hansen said the Canadian immigrant experience is, by and large, different. "Canada creams off highly skilled immigrants who are well-equipped to do well. But we do have doctors working as taxi drivers, so it's not perfect."
A recipe for violence
He said the problems in France are compounded by a kind of ghettoization not seen elsewhere.
The country's original immigrants most often settled in suburbs just outside Paris, such as Savigny-sur-Orge and Raincy, forming large African and Arab communities where unemployment is higher than the national average and residents complain of racism and discrimination.
But there is something else at work in France that helps explain the level of disenfranchisement among North African immigrants, Ibrahim Badr, a professor of French studies at York University in Toronto, told CBC News Online in 2005.
"The weight of family and tradition and historical background certainly separates them from mainstream French society. It's not just racism. Racism in France isn't any worse than anywhere else," Badr said.
Hansen added that the problem isn't so much large immigrant communities, but the conditions in those communities.
"There's nothing wrong with ethnic neighbourhoods. Toronto glories in them, as they should. But the problem is where you get a combination of ethnic concentration and poverty and high unemployment," he said.
Bloodshed in the suburbs
And so conditions were ripe for violence in France's immigrant suburbs when two teenagers of African origin were accidentally electrocuted in October 2005 while hiding from police. Police said they weren't chasing the teens, but anger erupted into chaos in several Paris suburbs heavily populated by immigrants and their children.
The trouble later spread to other regions throughout the country and the riots quickly deteriorated into France's worst civil unrest in decades, claiming at least one life. The violence ebbed and the headlines stopped, but the tensions beneath French society continue to simmer. On a normal night in 2007, police estimate about 100 cars are set ablaze across France.
Then, in November 2007, two teens were killed in a crash with a police patrol car in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel.
Youth took to the streets, throwing Molotov cocktails, setting police barricades on fire and, in a disturbing escalation of the violence, injuring dozens of police officers with gunfire.
France's 'moment of truth'
"Our collective responsibility is to make difficult areas the same sort of territory as others in the republic," France's prime minister at the time, Dominique de Villepin, told reporters in 2005.
"The republic is at a moment of truth," he said. "What is being questioned is the effectiveness of our integration model."
Two years later, those questions remain unanswered.