Project: Banlieues Ablaze

How Paris Exploded

by Joseph Mulia and John Conrace

John Conrace Joe Mulia
John Conrace Joe Mulia

From our very first day in Paris, we looked for leads and sources to back up what we thought we knew. We told people we met on the street that we had received a grant, and we changed our story depending on whom we were talking to. We met an Arab couple in the street and told them that we received the grant to study Immigration in France. We met a tour guide at the Mosque of Paris and told her we were studying Islam. We met a bartender in the 18th district of Paris and told him we were wandering in the parts of the city least traveled. We met dozens more people, we had dozens more stories, and amazingly, they were all true.

Our focus was to study the riots which took place in the fall of 2005. We learned rather quickly that although the riots themselves were little more than a flash of violence, the causes of the riots are deep-rooted, complicated, and becoming more and more important. Immigration and history, economics and religion, geography and politics, the tale of the poor and disenfranchised is rarely simple and never exact nor consistent. Our story changed because our mission changed, in order to focus on the different chapters of that tale.

Yet, regardless of our story or alibi, everyone we talked to knew what had brought us to France. The problems in the suburbs of Paris had gained international attention the previous fall, when they sparked the most violent riots France had seen in decades.

These recent events began when a routine police ID check turned tragic, and 10 youths playing football in the street became hundreds of youths, all wreaking havoc in the night.

The first casualties were two of the boys playing football. The boys were immigrants from Tunisia and Morocco. They were playing close to their homes, in Clichy-sous-Bois, a neighborhood in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris which overflows with adolescents and immigrants just like the two who died. The police decided to question the boys about a recent robbery.

The Police only go into the suburbs when they are looking for criminals; the Banlieues are overflowing with immigrants who are not always fully documented residents of France. Perhaps this was the case with a few of the boys playing soccer that evening.

An anarchy symbol painted on the side of the door. Symbols like this are common all over Paris.
An anarchy symbol painted on the side
of the door. Symbols like this are common
all over Paris.

Nobody knows why the boys fled. The police said they were thieves, some have suggested that their documents were not up to date, but one thing is certain: the boys were scared. The police chased the boys down the street until the desperate boys climbed over a fence to avoid their pursuers. Lights flickered and sirens wailed across the neighborhood. Two of the boys had fled into an electrical substation and were electrocuted.

The community’s anger at the police for the boy’s death was the ostensible cause for the first riots which began the evening 27th of October. The suburb’s youths mobilized against the police that night. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, they destroyed cars and buildings, setting fires and breaking windows. The police fought back with tear gas but it did little to calm the raging youths. At the end of the night 17 police had been reported injured, 27 people had been detained, and the crisis had only just begun.

Quickly the anger spread outside of Clichy-sous-Bois into the neighboring district of Montfermeil, in which a police garage was burned. By the first of November the riots had spread to cover all of Seine-Saint-Denis. That night alone as many as one hundred fifty arson attacks were reported, including an attack on a grade school in Sevran and an attack on the town hall of Aulnay-sous-Bois. The rioters were angrier than ever and the police were equally enraged. The police added rubber bullets to their arsenal, and both sides became increasingly violent in their attacks.

The one week anniversary of the boy’s death’s (Nov 2nd, 7th day of rioting) was marked by some of the most shockingly bold attacks by rioters, including a raid on a police station. This began the second week of the riots, as well as riots outside of Seine-Saint-Denis. The riots were spreading like wildfire and now included most of the Île-de-France (metropolitan Paris) region.

The next day would mark the riot’s spread outside of Paris, into the regions of Dijon, Rouen, and Bouches-du-Rhône. That night nearly 600 vehicles were torched, and more than a thousand fire fighters were called to put out a fire in a carpet factory. France glowed in the fires of burning cars and buildings as the the riots spread.

This tree and the ground surrounding it were painted by demonstrators last spring.
This tree and the ground surrounding
it were painted by demonstrators last
spring. This tree is an indirect relic of
the suburb riots. After the riots, French
politicians tried to pass a law changing
labor rights so that it would be easier
to hire and fire employees. While we
were in Paris, it was commented that
the white demonstrators who painted
this tree did no more than yell and
stamp their feet, as where the Arab
demonstrators burned cars and shot
at police. Needless to say, it was a
white Frenchman who said this.

The next day more than a thousand arson attacks were reported nationwide; cars, schools, nurseries, youth centers, and other government buildings were torched and attacked. Military intervention was requested and militias were formed. Plainly, the riots were more than a localized ethnic catharsis. Immigrant neighborhoods all over France were breaking out in riots, and the spread showed no sign of slowing. Many of the French people we talked to said that for a few days, they feared civil war.

By the end of the night on November 6, the country had seen one of the worst days of rioting since the 1968 riots, which bordered on revolution. On the that day alone, thousands of vehicles were burned and an extra 2300 police drafted. The next day President Jacques Chirac called an emergency meeting of his cabinet, after which he re-activated a law not seen since the 1955 Algerian war (Law n°55-385). The law declares a state of emergency and curfews in affected regions. It’s hard to say that the curfews didn’t help calm down the riots, because that night only 617 cars were set ablaze, which is a sharp decrease compared to the previous night’s 1100.

Chirac’s intervention marks the beginning of the end of the riots. The curfews were wide and strict, turning entire districts into police states overnight. Foreigners arrested for rioting were deported, public meetings were banned, and entire regions were shut down. Over the next few weeks the riots would slowly drag to an end. Daily fire bombings would continue and the scope and territory of the riots would fluctuate, but Chirac’s intervention marked the end of the worst.

Government intervention was not all that forced the riots to stop; pressure from civilian organizations had a great impact on the rioters as well. Although community leaders had condemned the riots from the first day, after the state of emergency was established their voices became more clear. The riots ceased as a result the state of emergency, the crackdown on rioters, and the public outrage at the violence. The riots left France in a battered and retrospective state, and although they would rage on for another week, the worst was well over and the nation stood to gaze upon its smoldering troubles.