Riots in French cities reveal deep social fractures. Here’s how the church is trying to help.
The fracture between the French state and youth in impoverished neighborhoods around the nation’s largest cities has led to widespread violence in recent days. Religious leaders and institutions are trying to respond after thousands of young people, many the children or grandchildren of North African immigrants who first came to France in large numbers in the 1960s, took to the streets.
They were protesting the killing by police of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk during a traffic stop on June 27 in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. Some young people have been involved in robberies, arson and looting as part of the violence.
The fracture between the French state and youth in impoverished neighborhoods around the nation’s largest cities has led to widespread violence.
Many in France believe Merzouk’s killing blew the lid off years of simmering resentment because of the police treatment of black and Arab youth, the ghettoization of immigrants and their descendants in high-density suburban housing projects around major cities, and the general hopelessness among black and Arab youth who feel like second-class citizens in France. Images of young people burning public administration buildings and looting schools and shops has been a shock to much of the nation.
More than 3,500 have been arrested so far. One third of those arrested are under 18, and 60 percent have no criminal record, according to the French Minister of Interior. Only 10 percent of the people arrested were not French-born, but members of the political far right say the rioting demands a more critical look at immigration policy.
The far right's anti-immigration mantra is seeping through a once ironclad political divide between it and mainstream politics. “We know the causes” of France’s unrest, Bruno Retailleau, head of the conservative group that dominates the French Senate, said last week on broadcaster France-Info. “Unfortunately for the second, the third generation there is a sort of regression toward their origins, their ethnic origins.”
Mr. Retailleau’s remarks, which drew accusations of racism, reflect the current line of his mainstream party, The Republicans, whose priorities to keep France “from sinking durably into chaos” include “stopping mass immigration.”
“This tragedy is the latest in a series of terrible episodes that reflect a muted tension that has been building for years at all levels of society.”
“This tragedy is the latest in a series of terrible episodes that reflect a muted tension that has been building for years at all levels of society,” said Marin Izoard, the head of communication for Le Rocher Oasis des Cités, a Catholic organization that works with disaffected youths in the notorious high-density “banlieues,” or housing projects that are located around French cities. “This divide—named as such nearly 30 years ago—runs deep.”
Le Rocher is active in Paris, Lyon, Toulon and Marseille. “We are doing a very important job in these neighborhoods, tackling the issue of social fracture from its roots,” Mr. Izoard said. He describes Le Rocher as “an oasis of living together in tough neighborhoods.”
“We build trust with the residents of these neighborhoods to offer a wide range of activities, workshops and help, for example with administrative [affairs],” assisting housing project residents with paying taxes or in applying for social benefits, he said.
Mr. Izoard declined to comment on the riots directly, explaining Le Rocher did not wish to contribute to a prejudiced and clichéd discourse on the young people who have been clashing with police. He did distribute a newsletter describing Le Rocher’s outreach efforts and their importance to communal harmony in France.
Organizations like Le Rocher hope to connect discouraged youth from the banlieues with broader French society, links that the bishop of Nanterre hopes to nurture. The Most Rev. Matthieu Rougé has pastoral responsibility for around 50 parishes in the Parisian suburbs with one of the most densely populated areas—over 1.5 million residents—in the department of Hauts-de-Seine.
Khalid el Khadir: “We are here on earth to reach out to each other and get to know each other in depth.”
Bishop Rougé has been extremely active among the different racial and religious communities within his diocese during the rioting. Responding to the disorder in the streets, “my mission was threefold,” he said. “Firstly, to pray, and get people to pray, for peace; secondly, to be present not only to people who were worried [about the violence] or even terrorized, but also to local elected representatives and government officials; thirdly, to call for dialogue and peace, in particular with other religious leaders in Nanterre and the department.
“French secularism is sometimes too rigid,” Bishop Rougé said, “but, paradoxically, it does not exclude good dialogue on the ground between religious leaders and public authorities, which was truly the case during last week’s unrest.”
While many of the youth in the streets have come from the Islamic community, Bishop Rougé does not see religion as a dominant force in the disorder. Instead, he noted an “educational deficit, social suffering and an identity crisis that we need to work on intensively.”
Discrimination is still widespread in France, with 54 percent of youth saying they have been the victim of derogatory remarks during job interviews, and 41 percent of the French workforce report being victimized by discrimination at some point during their career. The Covid-19 pandemic struck the banlieues very hard, with many families falling into poverty.
Many residents work in the hard-hit service sector as nannies, maids, office cleaners or bar and restaurant staff and are paid off the books. In Seine-Saint-Denis, a densely populated department of France on the outskirts of Paris, the unemployment rate is almost 10 percent, compared to just over 7 percent for all of France.
Bishop Matthieu Rougé: “French secularism is sometimes too rigid, but, paradoxically, it does not exclude good dialogue on the ground between religious leaders and public authorities.”
In France, you are 20 times more likely to be confronted by police if you are perceived as black or Arab, according to a study released by a government office charged with tracking human rights conditions in France. During these interactions, 40 percent of black or Arab citizens claim to have been addressed informally by their first name, which is considered demeaning in France where informal and formal sentence constructs matter. Only 16 percent of the general population report this kind of treatment.
Twenty-one percent of black or Arab citizens say they were insulted by police during their encounters, compared to 7 percent of the general population. These actions are technically illegal for police officers in France, but the offenses are typically overlooked and are extremely common.
In November 2016, the French supreme court handed down an unprecedented ruling on identity checks, ruling against the state in three cases, including on identity checks that had been carried out in a Parisian suburban shopping district in December 2011. The court found that “an identity check based on physical characteristics associated with real or supposed origin, without any prior objective justification, is discriminatory,” constituting “gross misconduct.” In total, five people were compensated because of such encounters with police. Despite that ruling, the relationship between police and non-white youth has not improved, according to surveys, and young people from projects continue to be profiled by police officers.
The massive housing projects that typify French suburbs were built in the 1960s to house waves of immigrants that arrived in France, but they have become social and economic traps. Most were located far from the city centers.
The living conditions of these communities are also quite poor, encouraging the youth to stay out of their homes as much as they can. In Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, researchers found in 2017 that 40 percent of the housing projects’ apartments could be classified as hazardous, either contaminated with asbestos or overrun by mold.
In France, you are 20 times more likely to be confronted by police if you are perceived as black or Arab.
“In working-class neighborhoods, there are certainly people in very precarious social situations, but there are also residents who love their neighborhoods,” Bishop Rougé said. “The most serious difficulties seem to me to be the absence of fathers—a very large number of families are single-parent families—the inadequacies of our education system and the hold of drug trafficking.”
Some neighborhoods are so controlled by drug traffickers that they have become essentially “no go” areas for state and municipal authorities—gangs, not the police, act as community enforcers, creating “the appearance of order, but an order, more or less tolerated by the public authorities, based on illegality,” said Bishop Rougé.
Street violence is a major problem within these high-crime, high-poverty communities in France. Much of the violence derives from drug-trafficking. Young men can be found peddling drugs from the stairwells of public housing projects, often using children as lookouts for the police. The drug markets degrade the living conditions of the other project residents. Some Parisian neighborhoods, as well as the northern neighborhoods of Marseille, are described as “drug supermarkets.”
The prominence of the drug trade in France’s banlieues is the result of persistent high unemployment and decades of state neglect of Arab and immigrant communities.
In order to get these neighborhoods to open up to the French mainstream—many teens never leave them—Le Rocher offers different activities such as coffee breaks for women and outreach by staff in building hallways where drug sales take place. “The aim is to build lasting bridges between neighborhoods that are close to each other but that ignore each other,” Mr. Izoard said. “We believe that everyone has something to learn from each other.”
The street violence has been focused on Paris, but many other cities have also endured rioting. Lyon, southeast of Paris, is the third most populated French city, after Paris and Marseille. Khalid el Khadiri founded an outreach to youth called “Entre Connaissances,” a pun which can mean “between friends” or “among knowledge.”
Based on Islamic social principles, the organization encourages interfaith discussions and real knowledge of others’ cultures. “We are here on earth to reach out to each other and get to know each other in depth,” Mr. el Khadiri said.
The organization hosts dinners during Ramadan to break the fast. Its members visit churches and mosques and distribute food to the homeless. It also hosts social activities like hiking that get young people out of the projects and connects Muslim, Christian and secular youth. “We have people who have told us that they did not like Muslims before, and now they have changed their minds thanks to our activities,” he said.
He hopes the effort can dial down racism, which is widespread in France and has been exacerbated by the riots.
“We want to change mentalities,” Mr. el Khadiri said. That would be a huge project in France now, with its political left fractured and hardliners on the political right seemingly poised to take power.
With reporting from The Associated Press