The rioters who have burned out neighborhoods in cities across France for a fortnight are overwhelmingly of North African and Arab ancestry, overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly cut off culturally and economically from the larger French society — and overwhelmingly Muslim.
But saying they’re Muslim is a subject of angry dispute. French officials downplay the religious connections, and some newspapers, particularly in the United States, avoid identifying the rioters as Muslim.
For the moment at least, the frenzy may be subsiding. With curfews in Paris and more than two dozen other cities, and a 12-day state of emergency in effect, French authorities reported yesterday a decline in reports of violence. Car burnings fell by nearly half. But vandals attacked a number of sites, including a large store in the north and a newspaper warehouse near Nice.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has taken a hard line on quelling the violence, ordered the deportation of 120 foreigners detained by French police since the unrest began.
Mr. Sarkozy, who has denounced the rioters as “scum,” said, “I have asked regional prefects to expel foreigners who were convicted — whether they have proper residency papers or not — without delay.”
Most of the rioters do not appear to be foreigners, but French citizens, young men from first- and second-generation immigrant families from Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia — former French colonies — and other North and West African nations.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin blames the rioting on “structured groups,” apparently euphemism for “Muslim,” but French officials say they have no evidence that international Muslim radical groups are involved in promoting the violence.
“For the moment, we see no link at all with the networks that we work on,” French anti-terrorism judge Jean-Francois Ricard said in Paris. Arrest figures released so far indicate that most of the hoodlums are young and male. About half are younger than 18.
They’re technologically savvy. Investigators say the rioters are using the Internet, cell phones and text-messaging to coordinate attacks. Der Spiegel, the German newspaper, quoted one of the text messages from one rioter to another: “We aren’t going to let up. The French won’t do anything and soon we will be the majority.”
Alexis Debat, a former French government counterterrorism analyst, says the ringleaders are “hard-core delinquents” from impoverished Muslim neighborhoods that surround many French cities. They have criminal records that include petty theft, vandalism and drug dealing, but investigators say they see few obvious links to fundamentalist Islamic movements that have declared war on the West.
“This is a problem of poverty and opportunity, not a problem of Islam,” he says, noting that there were fewer incidents in neighborhoods where radical Muslim organizations were strongest.
But Mr. Debat says the ringleaders have been joined in the streets by a much larger group of second-generation North African and Arab immigrants who are turning to Islam because they feel alien both in France and their ancestral homes.
“The only possible identification left for many of them is Islam,” he said. “They feel betrayed by France, and I don’t blame them.”
Reporters for the French newspaper Le Monde spent a night on the streets with a group of rioters near the city of Aubervilliers. “It’s like driving a dog into a corner,” one of the rioters told them. “We are not dogs, but we are reacting just as any animal would do.”
They complain of rough intimidation by the French police, condemning as “blasphemy” the tear-gas bomb fired at a mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois, the Parisian suburb where some of the first riots took place, for which a government official has apologized. Rioters, for their part, have torched synagogues and churches to cries of “Allahu akbar” — the Arabic slogan, “God is great.”
Robert S. Leiken, an immigration scholar at the Washington-based Nixon Center, speculates that the riots could lead to a split between moderate and more radical Islamic jihadist groups, especially if the government does not make lasting reforms.
He notes that the head of a leading moderate French Muslim organization was pelted with rocks when he appealed for calm earlier this week. “We may be seeing a split inside the French Islamic community. It makes sense that the jihadists would very much want this [violence] to spread.”