French Muslims Rock the Casbah

For the past two weeks, France has been aflame with explosive riots following the death of two French Muslim teenagers. These riots are reminiscent of the student riots that plagued France in 1968 and threatened to tear the French government apart. Although the causes are different, the mistakes that both French administrations made before and during the riots are similar. The French government needs to end the current riots by addressing racism against French Muslims and dealing with unemployment. The most recent riots began on Thursday, October 27th following the electrocution deaths of two boys, aged 15 and 17, in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor and predominantly Muslim community in France. The two boys, who were supposedly being chased by police, died while climbing over an electric fence. The boys were afraid of interrogation because they believed that the police would be prejudiced against French Muslims. This perception, common among French Muslims, helped lead to the current unrest. And the initial police reaction to the riots following the deaths of the two boys only fueled the problem. The riots were isolated in Clichy until the police made the mistake of firing tear gas grenades into a mosque. This attack outraged the entire French Muslim community and spread the flame that was sparked in Clichy. This event is shockingly similar to the police response at the University of Sorbonne, where the 1968 riots began. Police at the Sorbonne fired tear gas grenades into crowds of students protesting the arrest of their classmates. The university students of France, like today’s French Muslim population, believed that the police were working against them. The use of tear gas grenades against unarmed groups in both situations led to the spread of violent civil unrest. Police actions following the Clichy riots, including the occupation of rioting communities with hundreds of officers, have continued to alienate the French Muslim community. Occupying rioting communities only creates greater hatred that fuels the spread of riots, as proven by the 1968 student riots. The installment of curfew will also make the people feel more threatened and will cause more problems. The detrimental effects of the police’s actions can be shown in the response of an Algerian rioter to a journalist: “It is the attitude of the police, they insult us. People here [French Muslims] don’t feel like they’re part of the political system. Their only recourse is to violence.” One thing in the French government’s favor is that French Muslims make up the majority of the rioters. The greatest problem of the 1968 riots was that the rioters could not be categorized into any single group; the French government had succeeded in uniting their people across racial, economic, and political lines, a feat that is generally considered an accomplishment. The problem in 1968 was that the people were united with an intense desire to see the government fall. In 1968, the rioters stopped only after leftist political groups, including the French Communist Party, spoke out against the riots. This time, the riots have been both condemned, in the case of a Fatwa issued against the riots, and spurred on, in the case of some Islamic extremist groups that are calling for similar riots throughout Europe. If the French government wants to prevent revolution, it needs to take matters into its own hands and immediately address the seeds of discontent: racism and unemployment. Although less than 10 percent of the French population consists of Muslims from Africa, the problem of unemployment is far more widespread. Certain areas of France are facing unemployment rates of up to 40 percent. Some people have already called the current riots a “rebellion of the underclass.” If the idea of insurrection begins spreading on economic lines, the French government could be dealing with another revolution.