16 August 2023

4 min read

Vol 6, 2023 | France’s flashpoints and the ingrained drivers of unrest

GRB V.6, 2023
Vol 6, 2023 | France’s flashpoints and the ingrained drivers of unrest placeholder thumbnail

Despite government efforts, deep inequality and social marginalisation continue to characterise France’s low-income neighbourhoods, creating a tinder box of tensions waiting for the right catalyst to erupt, writes Tamsin Hunt.

On the morning of 27 June, a police officer shot and killed 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk for refusing to stop at a traffic check in Nanterre, just west of Paris. Little was the officer to know that his actions would set in motion countrywide riots rooted in deep-seated grievances and inequalities that have simmered for decades. The protests lasted for six days; causing more than USD 1.1 billion worth of damage to shops, schools, banks, town halls, police stations and government buildings across the country. While some demonstrations occurred in city centres, including in Paris, the worst of the violence took place in banlieues – a term that directly translates to ‘suburb’, but has come to refer specifically to low-income housing projects, home to more than 5 million people and dominated by African and Arab immigrants and their descendants. While some banlieues are prosperous, many are characterised by high rates of poverty and social exclusion, which – if not meaningfully addressed – will continue to create the ideal conditions for further civil unrest.


GRB volume 6 2023 Graphics


Bias in the banlieues

Residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods are three times less likely to be employed compared to the national average, and an estimated 57 percent of banlieue children live in poverty, more than double the countrywide average of 21 percent. And yet, these areas are characterised by substantially lower rates of state funding for basic social services such as security, healthcare and education. Approximately 40 percent of families in low-income neighbourhoods do not have access to pre-schools; there are, on average, 37 percent fewer healthcare professionals in these areas; and residents have access to 50 percent fewer sport and recreation services. In Paris, banlieues are physically separated from the city centre by the Boulevard Périphérique that encircles the city, further entrenching this social exclusion; and residents joke they need a passport to cross that divide.  

Poverty and marginalisation have created hostilities in banlieues that only require a spark to ignite. In 1979, the first banlieue riots occurred when a teenager died by suicide following his arrest for stealing a car; and in 2005, two teenagers died while hiding from police in an electrical substation near Paris, prompting more than three weeks of countrywide riots and a state of emergency. Police brutality and alleged racism – long a significant grievance among low-income communities in France – provided the catalyst  in June 2023. 

In recent years, French police have repeatedly been accused of excessive use of force, and official statistics show that traffic police shot and killed a record 13 people in 2022. Although the ethnic identities of those 13 are unknown (France largely prohibits ethnic profiling in its statistics), a 2017 government report showed that young men of African or Arab descent are five times more likely to be stopped by police than their white counterparts. 

Government (in)action

By 2 July, protests had eased, and relative calm had returned to the streets of France; however, banlieues will remain a tinder box for unrest in the years to come. Entrenched issues of inequality, discrimination and police racism are difficult and time-consuming problems to address, requiring substantial political will and investment – both of which are lacking. The government has so far ignored calls to reform the police and appears to deny that there is even a problem, going so far as to tell the United Nations in a statement on 30 June that ‘any accusation of systemic racism or discrimination by law enforcement in France is totally unfounded’. Meanwhile, the increasing polarisation of French politics will continue to exacerbate the situation. While the hard left refused to criticise the actions of rioters and looters, the far right blamed the crisis on immigration and sinister ‘foreign enclaves’ – despite the fact that only one in 10 of those arrested for violence during the June/July protests were foreign nationals – whilst calling for a harsher crackdown. Such extreme political positioning will likely only entrench perceptions of inequality and discrimination, rather than make any progress towards resolution and integration.     

That is not to say that the authorities have done nothing. Over the past 20 years, government has spent more than USD 65 billion on renovating housing blocks, improving facilities, and extending metro and tramway networks out of city centres to suburban areas. However, the provision of aid and benefits remains distinctly lower in disadvantaged areas than in France as a whole. Indicatively, the Seine-Saint-Denis Department to the northeast of Paris is the poorest department in France, and yet it is also the eighth largest contributor to income support programs. As a result, much of the department’s council budget flows towards national welfare programmes, rather than to local employment or inclusion policies. Nevertheless, government data shows that there are high levels of upward social mobility amongst immigrants and their descendants in these areas, with 10 to 12 percent of residents relocating out of disadvantaged banlieues every year.  The number of university graduates in suburban areas is also proportionally close to that of wider France, and 72 percent of children from low-income households earn more than their parents.

A stagnant state of affairs

Political scientist Ted Gurr’s seminal work in the 1970s pointed to the increased propensity for violence that arises when a population experiences continued perceptions of deprivation. But recognising these conditions – and in the case of the French banlieus they are eminently present – does not in isolation lend itself to readily pinpointing the unique triggers or catalysts that result in specific incidents of violence. The banlieue residents of tomorrow will not be the same as today. But the grievances will remain, and short of a comprehensive programme of social reform, a repeat of the July rioting remains a distinct possibility. In the longer term, it will in large part be the French government’s actions that will ease (or not) the underlying drivers of social discontent. 



Tasmin Hunt
Tasmin Hunt
Strategic Intelligence Analyst
Tasmin Hunt
Tasmin Hunt

Strategic Intelligence Analyst

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