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Ritos and Protection Rackets: Explaining the contrast between Paris and Marseilles in 2005

Cathy Schneider
American University
Cathy Schneider
American University
Open Panel

Abstract

In 2005 riots exploded in Paris and rapidly spread throughout France. While France burned, Marseilles, however, remained quiescent. Marseilles’ calm calls into question some of the most common explanations for the uprisings. Marseilles has more poverty, more unemployment, more immigrants and more Muslims than any other city or region in France. What explains this paradox? In Paris, I argue, police violence activated racial boundaries, pitting Arab and black youth against both the city and the state. When the Minister of Interior defended the police who had just chased two teenage boys to their death in an electric substation outside Paris, he nationalized what began as a local crisis. Flames then consumed neighborhoods with similar characteristics. In Marseilles, however, three features of the city diffused and deactivated racial boundaries. The first was the distribution of Arab and black tenements, apartment buildings and businesses throughout downtown, as well as in distant and impoverished northern reaches. The second was the political machine that incorporated many of the city’s residents in its hierarchical web-like structure. The third was the role of Corsican and Italian mafias in employing neighborhood youth and enforcing political order. Marseilles police rarely entered the housing projects in the north of the city. Instead, local mafias exerted control: employing the threat of deadly violence, without activating boundaries, inciting rebellion or ameliorating misery.