What the street barricade was to France in the 19th century, the burning car has become in the 21st: a preferred means of violent protest, and a key theatrical symbol of political defiance. In 2005, after two boys named Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré died while running from police, rioters burned close to 9,000 cars across France in unrest that ultimately led President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency. This year, after an officer shot and killed a boy named Nahel who was trying to drive away from a police stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, thousands more cars have gone up in smoke, while shops and police stations have been attacked in hundreds of cities and towns across the country. The wave of violence has swept through the weekend.
But if the barricade remains a symbol of revolution, the burning car mostly represents impotent rage — and France’s political petrification. Street barricades had an important and clear purpose — to take control of neighbourhoods and to prevent the forces of public order from circulating through cities. True, the builders of 19th-century barricades usually went down to defeat, at least in the short term. In June of 1848, the army killed thousands in Paris, spelling an end to the radical phase of the short-lived Second Republic. In the spring of 1871, conservative republican forces slaughtered thousands more as they crushed the radical Paris Commune. But, in both cases, the people had shown their power, and in subsequent decades French governments moved to grant at least some of their demands. In the decades after the Commune, French workers gained paid vacations, a minimum wage, old-age pensions, the right to strike, and public works programs. Church and state were separated, and the educational system put under state control.
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By contrast, the burning car of the 21st has done little for the communities in question, or to help advance the rioters’ professed goals. Quite the contrary, in fact. Most immediately, the cars themselves belong overwhelmingly to members of the same communities as the rioters. And in the longer term, the events of the past week are most likely to benefit the far-Right, possibly even bring it to power in the next presidential election. This is not the fault of the rioters, who have desperately few options for constructive action. It is rather the product of France’s changing political landscape in the 21st-century.
The rioters’ professed goals are easily summarised. They want an end to police violence against members of their community, and more broadly an end to discrimination against them. They wanted the same things in 2005, even if hooligans took advantage of the unrest for their own purposes, as they are doing now.
The communities in question are, as the French put it, “issued from immigration”, principally from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. When they started arriving in France in large numbers in the Fifties and Sixties, they followed many other waves of foreign immigrants to the country: of Italians, Jews, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese and others. It is often forgotten, but between the wars France was the leading country of immigration in the Western world, and by the Eighties fully a quarter of the French population could count at least one grandparent born elsewhere. These earlier immigrant groups often met with discrimination, violence, and even — under the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II — deportation to Nazi death camps (a fate that also befell Jewish families with French roots going back centuries). But after the war their story gradually turned into a French success story, as assimilation took its course. The process was aided by the state’s heavy-handed insistence, implemented above all through an authoritarian school system, that groups could only gain acceptance if they wholly abandoned their earlier national identities and embraced a French one. Today, it is not unusual to find people with Italian, Polish, Jewish or Iberian surnames in the wealthiest and most visible strata of French society.
But this process has, so far, happened far more slowly and less completely with the newer immigrant groups, especially those from North Africa. Cultural differences have been greater than with the earlier groups, while the schools lost much of their earlier zeal for turning students into model French citizens after the uprising of 1968 led to a massive overhaul of the French educational system. Most importantly, the new groups have been shunted away into suburban housing projects — the so-called cités — out of sight and out of mind of the country’s ruling elites. Numbers are hard to come by, because the French state, in the name of treating all its citizens equally, refuses to keep statistics on the relative economic performance of different ethnic and religious groups (or even their numbers). But every major French city is ringed by cités where people of North African and black African descent dominate, and where rates of unemployment, poverty and crime far exceed national averages. The government does admit that nearly six million people, or a tenth of the country’s population, inhabit so-called “urban policy priority districts”.
Writing after the 2005 riots, I concluded that “the French Republic… desperately needs to find some way to offer the youths of the suburbs a meaningful form of integration into broader society.” Needless to say, this has not happened. True, even before 2005, a steady stream from the new immigrant populations was escaping the cités and joining the French middle class, and that pattern has continued. President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet today includes Rima Abdul-Malak, from a Lebanese Christian background, as Culture Minister, and Pap Ndiaye, son of a Senegalese father, as Education Minister. But the cités themselves remain as miserable as ever. Meanwhile, the horrific Islamist terror attacks of 2015, which killed hundreds, led the state to grant expanded powers to the police — in particular, loosening the restrictions in use of fatal force when officers feel threatened — which did nothing to reduce social tension.”
Since Macron’s election in 2017, several things have only made the situation worse. Macron himself initially insisted that he would balance his plans for liberalising the economy with ambitious social policies aimed at relieving the cités’ problems. But he never fulfilled the promise. At the same time, the continuing threat of Islamism — as seen notably in the 2020 beheading of a suburban schoolteacher after he had shown a class cartoons of the prophet Mohammed — reinforced the vision that much of the French white population already had of the cités as occupied territory in need of “reconquest” by the Republic (Prime Minister Manuel Valls already used the word, redolent of Spanish crusades against the Moors, in 2015). Further strengthening this vision has been the growing influence of the conservative cable news channel CNEWS — France’s equivalent of Fox News.
In both the presidential and parliamentary elections last year, this vision helped the French far-Right achieve its greatest political successes since the 19th century (at least, when not helped by the Wehrmacht). First, it bolstered the presidential campaign of hardline journalist, and former CNEWS commentator Éric Zemmour, who founded a political party called “Reconquest”, committed to ending immigration, expelling existing immigrants who supposedly resist assimilation, and placing Muslim houses of worship under strict state surveillance. When Zemmour’s performance faltered, his supporters moved over to Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, who won over 41% in the second-round presidential vote against Macron — the greatest for any far-Right candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic. Then, in the legislative elections in June, the National Rally gained 89 seats in the National Assembly, the most for any far-Right party since the 1880s.
The effects of these victories can be seen in the reactions to the killing of Nahel in Nanterre. While the Left-wing party La France Insoumise has condemned the police violence (which onlookers’ videos clearly showed to be excessive), National Rally politicians and police unions have called the rioters “savage hordes” and even “vermin”. In comparison with 2005, there are more public figures ready to speak in these terms, and to dismiss both police violence and the condition of the cités as irrelevant to the principal task of restoring public order. And that position is gaining traction in the population at large. In a poll conducted on June 28-29, the politician whose reaction to the crisis received the most positive score was Marine Le Pen with 39%, compared to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin with 34%, and Macron with 33%. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, scored only 20%.
The riots will doubtless burn out over the next few days. And Macron will most likely survive the crisis, just as he survived the widespread strikes and public anger this spring. The situation in the cités remains explosive, though. And Macron has already exhausted the political capital he gained after his reelection. But unlike in the 19th century, and the case of its barricade-builders, no reforms will be enacted that might alleviate the frustrations and anger of the car-burners. On Friday, Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece, and the vice-president of Reconquest described the riots as “civil war” and warned Macron’s government against any such measures. She characterised them as a form of “appeasement of the cités”, as if these parts of France were indeed the redoubts of foreign enemies, and the year was 1938. But as she knows very well, the more that violence consumes the French streets, the closer the far-Right comes to power.