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Attacking French Hopelessness

As French cities have burned, other countries have been very severe in judging France. Embassies have issued warnings to tourists and their citizens living in France; television news programs have shown hours of footage of burning cars. Other countries’ governments, it seems, have been trying to distance themselves from the problem, fearing a contagion that they know is likely to spread.

Mayors across Europe, however, have responded more moderately, feeling and showing solidarity with the plight of their French colleagues. They know that their cities are also vulnerable to urban violence, in so far as they have pockets of social inequality, including marginalized and excluded young people.

The specificity of the French situation is that the revolt is targeted against the state, and more precisely against the police forces. Unlike recent riots in the United Kingdom, which were inter-ethnic, the confrontations in France put their participants face to face with the police. Indeed, there is no specific religious or ethnic character to these riots, in so far as youth from various ethnic backgrounds have taken part.

Minority youth are, to be sure, over-represented among those involved. This is easily explained by their geographic segregation, higher levels of unemployment, higher school dropout rates, and disproportionately frequent interactions with the criminal justice system.