French officials point to a host of causes—poverty, unemployment, the influence of criminal gangs—for riots that erupted this week.
But there’s one taboo issue that officially colorblind France has been unable to confront: race.
The violence, like riots that spread nationwide for three weeks in exposed how parts of France have divided along color lines, with blacks and Arabs trapped in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods—like Villiers-le-Bel, in the northern suburbs of Paris, where gangs attacked police and burned cars and buildings this week.
“Among the rioters, the very large majority come from immigrant backgrounds,” said Douhane Mohamed, a police commander. “Why? We mustn’t kid ourselves: there is a direct link between urban violence and ghettos, and the majority of people with immigrant roots live in ghettos.”
France does not like to see its recurrent, and some say worsening, bouts of urban violence through the prism of race or color. Rioters are often described simply as “youths,” while poor projects with large concentrations of immigrants are “sensitive urban zones.”
In the name of equality, France has so idealized the melting pot that it has made its minorities invisible—on paper at least. The country does not compile statistics on the foreign-born or their French-born children. France, a nation of 60 million people, has the largest Muslim community in western Europe but does not know how many Muslims live here. The number is estimated at about 5 million—though some experts disagree.
Critics argue that being officially colorblind has limited France’s ability to recognize and treat the difficulties its minorities face—sometimes because of their color. Immigrants and their French-born children often complain that it is harder for them than whites to get work, job interviews, housing, even entrance to nightclubs.
In some such areas of the Paris region, “there are no white French people left in the streets. You can drive around for two or three hours and all you will see are North Africans and blacks. And these are neighborhoods with enormous problems,” he added. “Those who have the means to leave the projects are white, and they leave. There’s no more ethnic diversity.”
It was impossible not to see the violence in Villiers-le-Bel in black and white terms.
The hundreds of beefy riot police officers drafted in, some from as far away as France’s eastern border with Germany, were almost exclusively white. The neighborhoods they patrolled were largely black and Arab.
The trigger for the rioting was the deaths last Sunday of two teens whose motorcycle crashed with a police car. Lakamy Samoura, 15 and Mohsin Sehhouli, 16, weren’t wearing helmets and their bike was not authorized for public roads.
Tellingly, neither of the teens will be buried in France, although both were French. Mohsin’s parents are taking his body to Morocco; Lakamy will be buried in Senegal, from where his parents emigrated in 1966.
Having a foot in France and another in Africa is something that Maka Sali, a black 17-year-old in Villiers, identifies with. She said she doesn’t like taking trips into Paris—about 20 minutes away on the train—because she doesn’t like the way some whites there look at her.
“I feel like a foreigner,” she said. She also said it was “just terrible” that it took the deaths of two teens to thrust the issue of France’s poor neighborhoods back to the forefront of the national agenda.