The violence that erupted in the northern French city of Amiens the night of August 13th has brought France and the rest of the world into a state of shock. While violence this extreme is rare, the events are not random but the result of a long struggle in the northern part of the city between residents and police.
The violence started at a memorial service that was being held that night for a young man who was killed in a motorcycle accident, and led to 17 injured police officers, a burned elementary school, as well as damage to several other buildings and cars. 100 extra police officers were sent as reinforcements. Amiens had already been placed on a list of 15 priority zones that require special attention from the government. Five arrests have been made, and two men involved were given suspended prison sentences.
These events have brought claims from the Right that the Socialist government is not strict enough regarding security measures.
The source of the problem is economic, but the social aspect of the situation cannot be ignored. In this case, the social and economic conditions that caused Monday night’s violence are inseparable.
Amiens is the governmental seat of the northern French department of Somme, where the unemployment rate is 12%. The national unemployment rate for ages 15-24, however, is 23.3%. According to the government of the city of Amiens itself, unemployment in the city can be as high as 45%.
The unemployment rate tends to be even higher for immigrants for several reasons. Their level of education is often lower, and in France education plays a pivotal role in determining possible employment.
But even among those who have equivalent educations, the rate of unemployment for immigrants is still higher, according to a study conducted in January 2012 by the Ministry of the Interior Department of Immigration. The study was done by Yves Breem at the Department of Statistics, Studies, and Documentation, and dealt with professional integration of immigrants and their descendants, using data from 2007- 2010.
The study looked at the differences in unemployment between the following groups: French with French parents, descendants of Euro-Zone parents, descendants of immigrants from third-world countries, immigrants from third-world countries, and foreigners (non-citizens) from third-world countries. “Immigrants” were defined as those who have attained French citizenship. They compared the rates of unemployment for each of these groups with the rate of unemployment in France as a whole.
The national unemployment rate in France in 2010 was 9.4%. The rate for non-immigrants was 8.7%, while the rate for immigrants was almost double, at 16.0%. The study differentiates between Euro-Zone immigrants and immigrants from third-world countries. They are combined in the 16% statistic, but the rate for third-world immigrants in in fact much higher when the Euro-Zone immigrants are not included: 20.2%.
The rates of unemployment for immigrants from third-world countries, their descendants (French citizens by birth) and foreigners (non-citizens living in France), are all above 20%, much higher than the other rates, which are all under 10%.
This disparity indicates that French citizenship is not the key to employment, and that access to education is not sufficient to allow the child of an immigrant from a third-world country to be as successful in France as a French citizen with French parents.
These statistics do not apply specifically to the violence that happened in Amiens earlier this week, but the problems occurring there are representative of a more widespread issue that the government will need to face. Alan Bauer, a criminologist in France, said “these are small events that stand apart unless they take on greater importance.”
It is undeniable that the issue of immigration and the cycle of poverty are at the heart of the Amiens riots. A recent article published in The Economist discussed the policies of the interior minister Manuel Valls in dealing with the violence. He preached firmness and order as the most effective responses. The article questions the legitimacy of this approach, asserting that “violence on the outskirts of French cities is not the product of insufficiently firm policing but of the misery of life there.”
Similar to the United States, France has a long history of immigration beginning in the early 19th century. In a report published by the Monthly Bulletin of the Institute of National Demographic Studies, Gilles Pison explains that in countries like the US and France, where the history of immigration is very long and involved, the immigrant population “forms gradually.”
In France, the flow of immigrants has remained relatively stable over the course of the past century, but the source countries have changed. Before World War II, immigrants came mostly from Europe, followed by an influx from the Maghreb (a French term that encompasses the countries in North Africa), later followed by a second influx from Sub-Saharan Africa.
For its relatively small size, France receives a large number of immigrants. They received the 4th largest number of immigrants in 2000, following the United States, Russia, and Germany.
As is the case in many other countries, immigrants coming to France are in search of a better life. The improvement cannot be immediate, and so in France there are often neighborhoods in the suburbs of large cities with high immigrant populations, high unemployment rates, poverty, and violence.
The response has been to crack down more severely on violence, but the problem is more deeply rooted and will require careful consideration from Hollande’s new government.