Car burns during riots in Paris suburb Aulnay-sous-Bois, Nov 3, 2005One of the most persistent canards about Islam in France is that Muslim groups played a key role in stoking the three weeks of rioting in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in late 2005. Stories still regularly pop up on the Internet talking about “Muslim riots” or mentioning that cries of Allah-o-akbar were heard amid all the burning and trashing that went on. These cries, reported in the French press at the time, were taken as a sign the Islamists were behind the unrest. Bloggers coined the term “Paris intifada.” Some talked about “Baghdad-on-the-Seine.” Others were frustrated because the media did not make clear what role religion played in the unrest.

The French television channel France 2 has just broadcast an excellent documentary called Quand la France s’embrase… (When France Flares Up) about the 2005 riots in the suburbs and the 2006 student protests in the centre of many French cities. They interviewed dozens of police, politicians, community leaders and residents. They showed a lot of previously unbroadcast on-the-spot video footage taken on cellphones (sometimes by the rioters themselves). Their conclusion is actually not new. Most journalists covering the riots at the time (myself included) came to same conclusion after some initial confusion caused in part by false statements from politicians who should have known better. But the documentary is an excellent analysis of those confusing days, with new information filling out the story better than anything done before.

Rioters and police face off in Clichy-sous-Bois, Oct. 29, 2005The unrest was spontaneous and hardly organised at all, the documentary concluded. The rioters protested against widespread discrimination, unemployment and the government’s failed integration policies. Many were from North African immigrant families, and therefore from a Muslim background. But religion was not the driving force and Islamists did not organise or stoke the unrest. Some politicians accused Islamists early on in the saga, but this was more a case of clueless suits seeking a scapegoat than solid facts the police observed on the ground, the documentary concluded.

Bruno Laffargue, head of police intelligence for the Paris region, said: “We received no solid information that would permit us to accuse the Islamists of this or that riot. They stayed very much in the background in this affair.” Footage broadcast just before his interview showed an imam trying to calm down some hotheads. The clip (in French) can be seen at the end of the second video — entitled “Le tournant, quand tout bascule” (The turning point, when everything tips over) — on the documentary’s video clips page.

If anyone suspects Laffargue of whitewashing the Islamists, it should be noted that his conclusion — first written in a confidential note in late November 2005 for his boss, the interior minister at that time — contradicted what his boss had publicly said. The boss was none other than the current president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Early on in the riots, it was Sarkozy who said the unrest was “perfectly organised” by “mafiosi” (his term for drug dealers) and “fundamentalists.” His tough talk was controversial at the time and he was embarrassed when the note contradicting him was leaked to the press in early December 2005.