PARIS—In 2005, the Paris banlieues, the suburbs that are to France what the inner cities are to the United States, erupted in three weeks of riots. Triggered by the deaths of two teenagers who were reportedly evading police, demonstrators burned thousands of cars and trashed businesses—an uprising of rage by a population that’s largely poor and composed of immigrants, one that had long felt ignored by the state. To quell the riots, then-President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency.
Fast-forward to the present day. For three months now, protesters in yellow vests have held weekly Saturday demonstrations across France. Many have erupted in violence—shop-window smashing, car burning, damage to the Arc de Triomphe, even anti-Semitic outbursts. A movement that began with protests against a fuel-tax hike has now become a simmering crisis of representative democracy, one that’s prompted President Emmanuel Macron to offer a host of concessions and start a national debate about economic inequality.
But as the yellow-vest protests continue, one element has been largely absent from both the demonstrations and the debate they have sparked: the banlieues. Why that is says a lot about how some of the same issues that led to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States are playing out in France. Once again, one sees a tangle of interlocking divides—urban versus rural; white versus minority; haves versus have-nots; whose protests are heeded versus whose are seen as a threat to public order. This can be challenging to untangle in France, where conducting a census, or even opinion polls, on the basis of race or religion is illegal. But between the lines, race—and racism—is also at play here.