The Forbidden Scarf

The Blazing Riots of 2005

In 2005, 28,000 vehicles were burned in riots that spread across fifty French cities as the country’s aggrieved minorities rioted. How much of this was due to a ban on, of all things, a headscarf?

On 01 November 2005, a Wednesday night, forty cars and two buses were set alight in nine towns in the suburban département of Seine-Saint-Denis. When firefighters arrived, they were pelted with stones and bottles. The police, following soon after, were shot at. When a TV broadcast van was attacked, France’s national networks announced, as one, that they would not film this kind of news until the trouble was over. When it was over or at least had ebbed, 28,000 vehicles had been destroyed in a year of riots spread over fifty cities.

Was this all for the sake of a scarf?

A year earlier, in February, the French parliament passed a law by 494 votes to just 36 banning “obvious religious apparel” from schools. It prohibited pupils wearing “ostentatious” Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and the one item that the law was really directed against, the hijab, the headscarf worn by young Muslim women. The politicians hardly debated the issue at all. Just five minutes for each party to sum up their position. That was to be expected. The National Assembly does not have a single black or Muslim député from the sixty million plus population of Metropolitan France. 

To observers abroad, the law might appear petty. Aside from a deep intrusion into its citizens’ personal life, it was so heavy-handed, the kind of thing best dealt with at local, even school-board level rather than the central government.

In fact, Chirac was scoring points off the National Front, the extreme right wing party that won 17% of the popular vote in the 2002 presidential election on an anti-immigration ticket. He knew well that no one ever lost votes cracking down on Islam in France, a country that the Council of Europe's European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance warned in 1998 still maintained systemic discrimination against its minorities.

It so happens that Islam is the primary religion of France’s largest non-European ethnic group, les Maghrébins, the six-million-strong Arab and African community. When France gave independence to its colonies, many North Africans came to France as economic migrants, especially from Algeria, a country ruined after a bitter war that ended in 1962 (not counting the many harkis, pro-French Algerians who fought for the colonial government and were abandoned when France evacuated, 100,000 of them being killed by their vengeful fellow-countrymen). 

Today les beurs (slang for “Arabs”, the term under which most immigrant French are lumped), now represent around 10% of the overall population. Their parents and grandparents were hidden away in cités (‘cities’, Americans would say "the projects"), clusters of towering high-rises like Savigny-sur-Orge and Le Raincy in the suburbs of Paris but also ringing other cities. Often there was only just enough public transport provided to take their communities directly to their jobs in the factories of the périphérique (the industrial outskirts ringing the larger towns) but little or none linking the ghettos to the city centres themselves.

Fifty years later, these cités are run-down, frightening sprawls. The high-rises are served by broken elevators, heating systems don’t work in winter, dirt and dog mess pollute the hallways. Violence there is unexceptional. Even on a normal weekend, between twenty and thirty vehicles are regularly burned by rioters. Joblessness is endemic. France’s unemployment rate has hovered around 10% for a decade; in the cités, it is around 50%. 

Despite the lip service paid to the unity of France or perhaps because of it, the country is more discriminatory than almost any other western nation. There are rarely black or Arab faces on TV, none in the government. Job applications from candidates with North African names rarely go answered. Telemarketers must use names that are obviously français de souche (those of “real” French stock code for white). The police stop Arab and African drivers fifteen times more often than white drivers. The Institut Montaigne, one of France’s proliferating think-tanks, has issued reports on the country’s “rampant ethnic segregation” and “veritable ghettos”. France, one report says, “scarcely recognises the reality of minorities”.

The ban on headscarfs was just another indication to les beurs that some French were more equal than others. Their situation was not helped by scare stories in the newspapers about radical Muslim preachers setting up shop in the ghettoes and stirring up trouble amongst the young with their “Islamic gangrene” (as one otherwise impeccably PC newspaper put it).

So despite the fact that only about 1,200 Muslim girls regularly turned up to school in a headscarf anyway (of a school population of three million), the law was passed. Some 456 girls did go to school in their voiles (veils) and 45 were expelled (along with two sikhs). That, it seemed, was that.

A year later, Paris and the major cities of France were rocked by a wave of ethnic riots. The spark was an incident on 27 October 2005 when two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, were electrocuted after climbing into an electrical sub-station in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois in what locals say was an attempt to hide from pursuing police. New of their deaths triggered riots in the area. Only a couple of days before, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, had been pelted with stones and bottles on a visit to the Argenteuil suburb to see how new measures against urban violence were working. Obviously not very well. In a rage, he declared that the neighbourhoods should be "cleaned with a power hose", describing the violent elements as "gangrene" and "rabble".

Riots spread quickly to every major city and town in France. Trouble was reported in Strasbourg in eastern France, in Rennes, Rouen and Lille in the northwest and Nice, Toulouse and Avignon in the south. In the Paris region, two nurseries, one in Yvelines and another in Bretigny-sur-Orge, were set on fire along with a school in Seine-et-Marne. Rioters turned over a police station in Aulnay-sous-Bois. In Meaux, Arab kids threw Molotov cocktails at paramedics, In the Normandy town of Evreux, rioters torched waste 50 vehicles, a shopping centre, a post office and two schools; live rounds were fired but no one died. 

At the height of the violence, more than 1,400 vehicles were destroyed in a single night. Badly panicked, the government used a 1955 law imposing curfews, and restricted people's movements. Three thousand were arrested. and almost all came from the dispossessed Arab-African community. The destruction has been costed at €230 ($286 million) though the European Union, ever accommodating to its chief member, chipped in with a €50m ($59m) grant to the French.

The higher-ups were at a loss to explain the explosion of violence and looting. One right-wing depute, François Grosdidier, headed a group of parliamentarians that proposed banning French rap music on the grounds that it incited the violence. Another, from the left, Manuel Valls, called the riots “the consequences of territorial apartheid”, combined with the “bankruptcy of the model of integration”. The foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy argued that it was all due to a "very deep crisis due to the crisis of immigration and the failure of our minorities to integrate".

Perhaps the answer lies in a comment from Samia Amara, 23, a youth worker near Paris, interviewed for the BBC. “People always talk of the need to 'integrate' Muslims. But these youths are French. It is a hundred small things every day, like the ban on the hijab, that show them France does not consider them French.”


It is Racism. “Immigrants are blamed by a majority of French citizens for unemployment, crime and decreasing educational standards. They are seen by nearly three-quarters of the population as more likely to commit crimes than the average French person is. Nearly 40% of the population supports forcible repatriation of unemployed immigrants, and 22% supports forcible repatriation of all immigrants.” Vernellia R. Randall, Human Rights Documentation Centre, 2001.

It’s Not Racism. “Our problem is not foreigners, but there’s an overdose... the Muslims and the Blacks... the French worker who toils, along with his wife, earns about 15,000 francs, and sees across the next door landing of his council flat, all packed together, a father with three or four wives, and a score of children, who are receiving 50,000 francs in welfare benefits, naturally without working... If you add the noise and the smell, well, the French worker goes mad. It’s not racist to say this.” Jacques Chirac, speech in Orleans, 19 June 1991. 


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