Urban riots in France: the question is "when?"
Today marks the 5th anniversary of the urban riots that erupted in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois (in the impoverished département of Seine-Saint-Denis) after the accidental electrocution of two young boys of African descent mistakenly chased by the police. The chaos then spread to dozens of zones urbaines sensibles (i.e., projects) all over France and lasted for three weeks of violence and destruction.
One way to reflect on those tragic events is to assess the situation of those disadvantaged French urban areas (zones urbaines sensibles or ZUS) five years down the road. The picture, still blurred and in need of sharpening by official data, appears to be both depressing and deeply concerning. There are different forward indicators of troubles in the French projects, but the most relevant one may be the unemployment rate among young people (URYP) living in those areas. We of course don't have that figure for 2010, actually we don't even have it yet for 2009 (we will in a month or so), but a little extrapolation can go some way in understanding the likely gravity of the situation.
First, the reliable data we do have, from 2003 to 2008, clearly show that the URYP in the ZUS peaked in 2005 at 37.4% or 16.6 points higher than for "non-ZUS neighborhoods in urban areas including a ZUS.". The relative gap between the two kinds of urban areas (ZUS and comparable non-ZUS) was then 1.8. Afterwards, youth unemployment decreased in both ZUS and non-ZUS until 2007, with the gap narrowing a bit to 1.7 (meaning unemployment was slightly more reduced in the ZUS in the two years after the riots). For 2008, which marks the beginning of social woes resulting from the global crisis, the story is brutally different: with overall unemployment in ZUS continuing to decline (a little) from its 2007 level, unemployment among ZUS youngsters jumped to 35.7% when it continued to fall in comparable urban areas, with the result that the relative gap between the two reached a peak: the youth unemployment rate in the ZUS was twice as high as in the rest of France in 2008 (for young men, the rate of unemployment was 42%, up 10 points from a year before and as high as in 2005).
Unemployment rate of young people in ZUS (top)
and in non-ZUS neighborhoods of urban areas including a ZUS (bottom), in %, 2003-2008
Data source: OZUS, IGAS.
The gap visible in the graph above can be understood as a rate of social divergence: it measures the social distance between young people who, at the same age and in the same country, even in the same region, live in different urban environments, which define the different social opportunities they are given to start their adult life. It can therefore also represent a measure of urban riot risk: the risk of a revolt led by young people, triggered by the resentment against blatant inequality and often sparked by police brutality.
What is our best estimate of where the youth unemployment rate in the ZUS stands at the moment in France, five years after the 2005 riots? We know for a fact that the recession has hit French young people very hard: in the fourth quarter of 2009, unemployment among all French youth – a lingering problem of the hexagonal labor market, whose recent degradation is not unrelated to youth demonstrations against the pension system reform – was at 24.2%, with a peak at 25.3% for young men. This rate has since then receded a bit: it was 23% in the first quarter of 2010. If we assume that the rate of social divergence observed in 2008 has persisted, it means that unemployment for young people in ZUS might currently be somewhere near 45% (possibly near 50% for young men). We can only hope that these figures are grossly mistaken, because if they are anywhere near the truth, the question to be asked regarding the next urban riot in France is not if, but when. And it makes this anniversary even sadder.