France’s Double Standard for Populist Uprisings

Residents of the city’s poorer, immigrant-heavy suburbs have for years asked the government to take their challenges seriously. They’ve had little success.

Yellow-vest protesters attend a demonstration in Paris on February 16.
Yellow-vest protesters attend a demonstration in Paris on February 16. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters)

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.

The yellow vests have effectively become a movement of middle-class and lower-middle-class people afraid of slipping further down the economic ladder. The demonstrations began as rural protests, but they now also draw support from cities. Calling the participants the “white working class” is tricky, but it’s become clear that those in the banlieues—which have large populations of several generations from across Africa—haven’t been a major force. And even if those from the banlieues identify with some of the main issues the yellow vests are raising, for the most part, they have not seen themselves reflected in the movement.

When I asked Mounir Nordine, who runs an association for underprivileged youth in Grigny, an economically depressed suburb outside Paris, what he thought of the yellow vests, he told me that he supported them in spirit, but not in practice. “The yellow vests are calling attention to things we’ve been experiencing for a long time,” he told me, noting, for example, weakened purchasing power, as well as police brutality, which has become a major issue since these protests began.

But Nordine said he and others from the banlieues haven’t been joining in the Saturday demonstrations, which have often been marred by violence. “If we did that, we’d immediately be stigmatized and people would say, ‘The yellow-vest movement is going to turn into a guerilla war because you’re going to have kids from the suburbs showing up and trashing things,’ ” he said. Nordine didn’t talk about the ethnic makeup of the banlieues, but his remarks point to a recurring frustration: If you’re from “la France profonde”—rural France, largely white France—the demonstrations start a national debate (even if thousands of people have been questioned by police since the start of the yellow-vest protests); if you’re from the banlieues—and most likely of immigrant descent—and take to the streets, the demonstrations are seen as threats to public order.

Farid Bouchelouche, who’s active in a renters’ association in Savigny-sur-Orge, a suburb south of Paris, pointed to that double standard (even though he said he didn’t want to see it as a racial one). When the yellow vests take to the streets, “the demonstration is seen as a democratic right,” he told me. But if young people from the banlieues protest, “it’s seen as vandalism; it’s civil disobedience.”

The yellow-vest movement started out protesting a hike in diesel-fuel taxes. It developed at traffic roundabouts—and online—among people in rural and semirural areas of France, towns that feel abandoned by the state as schools, hospitals, post offices, and other social services have been scaled back. Surveys have found that supporters of the yellow-vest movement have a greater affinity with the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen than with any other party (the next most popular is a far-left group).

The banlieues have faced similar problems of unemployment and purchasing power for years. Over decades, they have also become a shorthand for people of color and problems of “integration”—code for a thicket of problems around economics, schools, social mobility, and even Islamic radicalism. These issues have simmered for years, without the kind of media attention that the yellow-vest protests have drawn. In December, a woman from Chanteloup-les-Vignes in Yvelines, a Paris suburb, who identified herself only as Yasmine F., wrote a blog post about why she wasn’t joining the yellow-vest protests. “To have trouble paying for gas means you already need to be able to pay for a car, have a job and degrees, and to get degrees and a job you need to be able to benefit from a better education and not to constantly be the victim of racism, discrimination and disdain from the upper classes,” she wrote. “For me, all those struggles come before the one about rising gas prices.”

There’s also a feeling of resignation in the banlieues. Many residents of the banlieues say a series of French governments have turned their back on the problems. They find it ironic that when a far smaller number of demonstrators don yellow vests and stand at traffic roundabouts to protest a hike in fuel taxes, “the whole world listens,” Nordine told me. “When in 2005 there were the problems and the suburbs were burning, voilà, everyone considered that total chaos. People said, ‘They don’t love France.’ But no, actually we love France. We’re French. People may think that, but in fact, they just don’t give a damn about us. It’s a feeling of rage.”

Some elected officials in the banlieues worry, too, that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears, and think: So why should we get involved now? Catherine Arenou, the mayor of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, told me that she found it puzzling when Macron jump-started a national conversation about income inequality because of the yellow-vest protests, after his government had rejected a series of detailed proposals about how to fix the French banlieues that a government-appointed committee submitted last summer. Known as the Borloo Plan, it recommended a 2-billion-euro ($2.25-billion) investment in education, public transportation, computer literacy, and initiatives to help women become more economically independent. “We spent six months making recommendations,” Arenou said of the report, “and he threw them into the trash can.”

That’s why her town did not host one of Macron’s debate evenings, in which he shows up and talks to citizens—sometimes boring them to tears, if the comments on online forums are anything to go by. Arenou said it would make things far worse if Macron were to come and once again not listen to concrete proposals. Macron visited other suburbs, but not Chanteloup-les-Vignes.

Above all, Arenou told me that she’s worried about a face-off between rural and urban issues, when in fact they are largely similar. “We’re heading somewhere troubling,” she said. “We’re trying to contrast different poverties, as if the poverty of cities and that of the countryside were at odds with each other.”