One of the persistent misconceptions of the riots that swept through France in the autumn of 2005 is that they were solely the result of the deaths of two youths as they ran from the police. The deaths of the teenagers on October 27 in Clichy-Montfermeil provoked unrest in the north-eastern Parisian suburb but it was what happened three days later that led to three weeks of nationwide riots and the declaration of a state of emergency by the then president of France, Jacques Chirac.
According to Gilles Kepel in his 2015 book, Terror in France: genesis of the French Jihad, it was a stray tear gas grenade fired by police that landed close to the entrance of a mosque that lit the touch paper. ‘The sight of the faithful suffocating, seized by panic, revived a weakening mobilisation and in a matter of days stretched it across the majority of inner-city estates,’ wrote Kepel.
The memory of that autumn fifteen years ago still haunts the French political class. Not just because of the £175m (€200m) worth of damage caused, but because of the political consequences.
At a local level, says Kepel, Islamists exploited the riots to lay the foundations of a political movement that has grown steadily ever since. Nationally, the winner of the 2005 riots was Nicolas Sarkozy, Interior Minister at the time, who two years later was elected president having siphoned off 7 per cent of the vote from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. In the 2002 presidential elections, Le Pen had stunned France by reaching the second round but Sarkozy stole much of his thunder during the 2007 campaign – he described the rioters as ‘riff-raff’ – and his hard line image won over many right-wing voters.
In terms of social cohesion Sarkozy’s presidency was a disaster.