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Rough Cut: France: Soundtrack to a Riot
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about France's colonial past and the pioneers and influences behind French hip-hop and rap.


Country Background

The French Republic is one of Europe's oldest and most influential countries, holding one of five permanent positions on the United Nations Security Council. France is a highly developed country, with the world's sixth largest economy, though it has only the 20th largest population.

France was among the founding members of both the European Union and the United Nations and has been considered a longtime ally of the United States. The French Republic is currently organized as a democratic unitary semipresidential republic, though it was a monarchy for many centuries prior to the 1900s.

Like the other European empires of the 17th century, France had colonies spread around the world, including present-day Canada, Haiti, Senegal, Algeria and others.

During World Wars I and II, however, France suffered heavily, in both manpower and economic power. Germany invaded and successfully controlled much of France at the height of World War II, but France rallied in the latter half of the century to regain its place on the world stage. By the early 1960s, however, most of France's colonies had been granted independence.

Over the last 200 years, France has taken in more immigrants than any other European country. They have often been welcomed as an answer to labor shortages. In the early years, these immigrants came mostly from neighboring countries, but starting in the mid 1950s, migrants from France's colonies or former colonies in north and sub-Saharan Africa began settling in. Those from the Maghreb (northwest Africa), particularly Algeria, became the most significant population of immigrants.

By the mid-1970s, France's attitude toward immigration had changed. The Maghrebian immigrants in particular were thought of as cultural aliens, impossible to assimilate and therefore a threat to the integrity of the French national identity. Integration of immigrant communities, including many second- and third-generation French residents, continues to be a hotly debated issue today.

Habitation a loyer modere, or "housing at moderated rents," is the term used to describe the French equivalent of housing projects. The HLM system began in 1950 due to a post-war housing shortage. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new form of HLM sprang up -- planned communities called zones a urbaniser en priorite, "priority zones to be urbanized." During that time, more than two million HLM residences were built. Although conditions have improved in HLM apartments since the 1950s, many HLM remain in poor repair, and many of those living in these areas are immigrants from former French colonies.

In May of 2005, French voters shocked Europe, turning against France's role as a proponent of European unity by rejecting a referendum that would have written a unifying constitution for the European states.

In late October of that year, riots in France were linked to the limits of the traditional French model of assimilation, one which stresses adherence to French cultural norms. Many of the rioters were youth of north and west African descent, born in France but often lacking a clear place in French society.

As France seeks to reform its immigration policies in 2006, making it more difficult for unskilled, low-income immigrants to enter the country legally, the future for hundreds of thousands of illegal economic migrants hangs in the balance.

Sources: BBC News, CIA Factbook, Foreign Policy in Focus, University of Sunderland, Wikipedia.
(Note: Wikipedia is a free-content encyclopedia that it is written collaboratively by people from around the world.)


Related Links

Rap and the Riots
Music reporter and FRONTLINE/World correspondent Marco Werman's journal from Paris for Public Radio International's "The World" covers the situation in the banlieues (suburbs) during the first week of January 2006.

French Hip Hop History
The Hip Hop Congress provides a brief summary of the history of hip hop and rap music in France, including its influences and early pioneers.

The Metamorphoses of French Hip Hop
Kiasma Magazine provides another discussion of the birth and growth of French hip hop, including the current landscape.

MC Solaar Lyrics
This site provides lyrics to many of the songs by MC Solaar, one of the best-known French rappers. Born Claude M'Barali in Dakar, Senegal, he moved with his family to a Paris suburb when he was a baby. He has appeared on the Missy Elliot track "All N My Grill" and gained popularity in North America in 2004 when one of his songs was featured on the HBO television series Sex and the City.

Review of the 1995 film La Haine ("Hate")
Online film critic James Berardinelli reviews this film about class struggles in and around Paris, made 10 years before the recent riots. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the film nearly predicted the explosion of repressed anger and frustration felt by immigrant youth in France.

"Immigration's Role Often Overlooked in Global Economy"
Leif Brottem writes on the effects of immigration policies, especially for African immigrants in France, for the think tank Foreign Policy in Focus.

Timeline: French Riots
The BBC News provides a chronology of key events leading up to and occurring during the riots of late 2005, including links to articles covering each major milestone.