The November Riots

Issues of causation were much debated during the French riots of November 2005, which attracted worldwide attention. The riots represented an explosive intensification of what was already a high level of ongoing violence in the French banlieues, where parked cars were likely to be burned. On average, somewhere in France, around ninety cars burned every night in the first ten months of 2005. Normally, the news media paid little attention to such outbreaks, but this situation changed dramatically in late October, when two teenagers of Muslim origin were killed fleeing police in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois in the "93." The two men—one with roots in Tunisia, the other in Mauritania— were electrocuted while trying to evade a police search. Adding to the tension, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy made provocative remarks denouncing gang control of poor towns and authorizing a police crackdown. He also promised to get rid of racaille, "scum," a loaded word recalling popular racist rhetoric against Arabs and Africans: parodying the pressure group SOS-Racisme, a right-wing website used the title SOS-Racaille. Sarkozy threatened to clean up the areas with a Karcher, an industrial-strength pressure washer, which some took to mean that the police would literally clean up the streets using water cannon.

Protests spread across the crescent of banlieues to the north and northeast of Paris, as young residents attacked police and public buildings, using arson, rock throwing, and Molotov cocktails, sometimes ramming stolen cars into banks and restaurants: in a few instances, bullets and buckshot were also used. By mid-November, riots had struck perhaps twenty of the largely immigrant communities around Paris. One flashpoint was Antony, close to Bagneux, where Ilan Halimi spent his tragic last days. Adding to generalized antipolice and antigovernment sentiment, particular grievances stirred unrest in certain areas in which communities had recently undertaken sweeping drug raids. Local imitators struck in thirty or so provincial cities, so that virtually every large or middle-size French city was affected to some degree. Night by night, the authorities tallied the severity of the violence by the number of cars set ablaze—420 in the Paris region on November 3 alone, with the national total reaching 1,300 on November 6, 1,400 on November 7. Reducing that figure to just fifty or sixty a night was regarded as a successful return to normalcy. Together, the riots constituted the nation's worst public order crisis since the popular revolts of 1968. The French police union spoke of "a civil war that spreads a little more every day."61

As in the Halimi case, American media outlets prominently stressed the religious angle, seeing the riots as reflecting Europe's failure to absorb its Muslim immigrants. Conservative magazines stressed the Muslim activism supposedly underlying the outbreaks, with Fox television news regularly headlining "Muslim Riots." Commentators drew far-reaching political lessons, with the British Spectator asking "Will London burn too?" and asserting, "It's the demography, stupid." Typical headlines from other newspapers and magazines included "The intifada comes to France," and the intifada concept was cited in French papers such as Le Figaro. Reporting from the hard-hit community of Aulnay-sous-Bois, the British Independent termed the area Baghdad-sur-Seine. Conservative journalist Mark Steyn saw the riots as a warning of a future religious apocalypse. Contemplating such an event, white Europeans might console themselves into thinking, "Fortunately I won't live to see it." However, Steyn remarks, "As France this past fortnight reminds us, the changes in Europe are happening far faster than most people thought. That's the problem: unless you're planning on croaking imminently, you will live to see it." For outspoken pro-Israel media, the riots reflected the failure of French "appeasement" in the face of radical Islam.62

Conversely, liberal and left politicians underplayed the riots, specifically the Muslim elements. The director general of France's news service TCI decided early on not to show footage of burning cars, partly in order to avoid encouraging further violence but also to prevent right-wing politicians drawing rhetorical ammunition from the conflicts. In the United States too, the Associated Press made very limited use of the word "Muslim" in its account of the riots, preferring, like the BBC, to stress themes such as immigration, unemployment, poverty, and deprivation. Conservatives mocked such discretion, seeing it as a sign of journalistic cowardice in the face of Muslim threats, of dhimmitude in action.63

But were these really Muslim riots? Undoubtedly, a sizable majority of the participants came from Muslim stock, from families who had immigrated from predominantly Muslim regions. Generally, too, rioters tended to avoid harming stores or businesses owned by local Muslims. Yet we see little evidence of the kind of political or religious consciousness that would allow us to speak of a specifically Muslim upsurge. We do not find, for instance, a widespread use of religious slogans or rhetoric, or an attempt to exclude non-Muslim protesters. If a few war cries of Allahu akbar! were reported, the question arises why thousands more were not uttered. No one reported or claimed central direction or manipulation by an avowedly Islamic political party or paramilitary grouping, no attempts were made to create "liberated zones," enforcing Islamic rule or moral regulations. It is difficult to contest the logic of the radical International Crisis Group, which declared that the unrest took place without any religious actors and confirmed that Islamists do not control those neighborhoods. Even though they had every interest in restoring calm and thereby demonstrating their authority, and despite several attempts to halt the violence, they largely failed: there were no bearded provocateurs behind the riots, and no bearded "older brothers" to end them.64

In fact, the riots of 2005 looked very much like the rodeo riots of the 1980s, though on a much larger scale, and nobody had seriously suggested a religious context for those earlier events.

French Muslim authorities sought to distance themselves from the riots, with the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF) condemning violence; and the UOIF represents a strongly conservative variety of Islam. The director of the Paris Great Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, issued a fatwa forbidding "any Muslim seeking divine grace and satisfaction to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone's life." Such condemnations had little noticeable effect, insofar as the rioters even noticed them. One remarked, contemptuously, "We don't feel represented by those people. We didn't vote for them. They're just filling their pockets."65

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