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1This study contributes to research on the triggers for a priori uncertain actions of collective protest. A prerequisite for such outbreaks is that the potential participants or organizers recognize an opportunity to be seized: in other words, the various factors must make action highly probable in their eyes. Some of these factors are based on explicit coordination (such as a deliberate call to protest). Other indispensable conditions are tacit: the notoriety of those calling for action, a key date such as 1 May, or a “trigger event”. These indicators do not appear to be created with the intention to mobilize, but their effects seem self-evident, guiding calculations about the opportuneness and means of action. This self-evidence arises from historical construction processes studied here by looking at the example of “blunders” and “suburban riots” in the Est lyonnais – a set of 25 communities in the east suburbs of Lyon.

Riots: examining shortcuts in the triggering of collective action

2Research on suburban riots in France is plagued by a paradox that still appears in the many works published in the wake of autumn 2005. Such research generally employs a “sociology of riots” that ignores the riots in question and their internal logics, [1] preferring to see them as a symptom of the problems in the suburbs and the strained relationships between young people and the police, or as a chance to study the construction of categories of public action or political strategies. [2]

3A limitation of these works, and even of those that look more closely at the unfolding and organization of the actions, [3] lies in how they analyze the outbreak of riots. The question is generally dealt with by making a leap (in the space of lines or paragraphs) from the death of one or two young people to the first violent acts, as if the connection between these two things were logical or natural. The passages tackling the relationship between a trigger event and the triggered event often offer unsatisfactory explanations: “If racism and discriminations of all kinds constitute the shared experience of these populations suffering many social difficulties, the violence of the ensuing riots is the product of a threshold effect: the final straw!” [4] Collective action is seen as the result of tensions reaching an unbearable level. This explanation seems more convincing than the metaphors of the “spark” and the “powder”, of “pouring oil on the fire”, or of “contagion”, and than the idea of a “trigger event for the ensuing riots, resulting from solidarity and anger”. [5] However, it poses many problems: the very same problems that have long plagued psycho-social theories on the outbreak of revolutions and revolts. It is impossible, for example, to concretely define the measure, the gauge, and the threshold for tolerance, other than by deducing them after the events. [6] And supposing that the riot is the result of such a threshold being crossed, this threshold must be the same, or rather crossed at the same moment, for each of the rioters. Quite the coincidence! This “final straw” hypothesis is not unique to French sociology. [7] Largely shaped by the employment of such metaphors by inhabitants and the media during the events, it is above all connected to the researchers’ subject of study. Focusing on the social problems experienced by the actors in the mobilization easily leads us to an etiological perspective when seeking to explain the start of this mobilization. However, other authors adopt an accusative interpretation, insisting on the “pretext” side of the trigger event. Using a sociological approach to mobilization, this article will seek to go beyond these normative perspectives.

Sociological perspectives on the trigger: for a strategic and constructivist approach

4I propose here an analytical perspective that aims to complement the range of existing tools, in order to examine the conditions for the triggering of collective action and violence. These tools are essentially built around three types of approach: political opportunity structures, redefining situations, and finally, examining relationships between latent groups and registers of action.

5The political opportunity structure, explored by Sidney Tarrow, [8] among others, aims to explain the role of the political system, its openings and the strength of connections to power in determining how likely mobilizations are to occur and succeed. This ambitious concept rapidly faced criticism, leading to the integration of various explanatory elements and an emphasis on the fact that opportunity is more a matter of perceptions and interactions than objective conditions. The relevance of the word “structure” was questioned. This concept covers so many factors that we no longer know whether it defines the general conditions of the possibility for mobilization, or whether it covers, a posteriori, any accidental opportunity that created this possibility. [9] The problems of the political opportunity structure, or at least its inadequate fit here, arise from the initial idea upon which it was built. In explaining the emergence of action by an environment defined essentially at a macropolitical level, it falls into two cardinal pitfalls.

6Firstly, by adhering to a restrictive definition of the environmental elements that influence opportunities for action, the political opportunity structure approach risks providing probabilistic explanations, to the detriment of our understanding of each case (“in a certain political regime or situation, there is more chance of revolts occurring”). Moreover, it neglects an essential point in the case that I present here: a salient event can cause mobilization independent of the political significance that the actors see in it.

7Secondly, its development combines various elements without answering the question that interests us here: what decisively leads potential protesters to see a situation or an event as an opportunity to carry out a particular action? Like etiological approaches it fails to provide an explanation. When combining all kinds of variables, it seems vain to hope to differentiate by determining which ones concretely affect a given stage of the action. In the case of the riots, we encounter the same problem, faced with the countless levels of analysis and factors identified as possible sources of meaning that might make the event a trigger. One such example is the “flashpoints model”, which invites us to look for the answer at structural, cultural, contextual, situational and various other levels. [10]

8Other research, focusing on the microsociology behind the emergence of protests, the mobilization process, or the subjectivity of the participants, has produced explanations that are more or less explicitly based on the idea of a redefinition of the situation. It is because an event or series of facts produces a new definition of this situation, emphasizing that things are unfair, abnormal, appalling or intolerable, that it allows actors to reject the status quo. This is the idea behind the injustice framework that interests William Gamson, [11] or the psychological shock of approaches focusing on the emotions. [12] Empirical works supporting these ideas allow us to emphasize that awareness is not a necessary stage in the life of a social class or group. It depends on processes of collective qualification of the situation, which are played out in smaller interactions. One of the postulates of these approaches is that the move to action is generally based on observable injustices in individuals’ living conditions, which they are not aware of until the decisive moment. However, although a sudden feeling of injustice can explain why certain individuals start participating, it does not allow us to understand the outbreak of the revolt. This is because this triggering generally involves actors who already had this state of awareness and were looking for opportunities, as well as others who were not exposed to the justifications for the action until shortly after they joined it. [13] To understand the triggering, we therefore need a grasp of the often tacit coordination mechanisms uniting these various participants.

9A third body of research looks at the effects of group characteristics on the modes of action available. This includes the works of Anthony Oberschall [14] and Charles Tilly, [15] who emphasize that the types of relationships (community, etc.) between the members of a group and between the group and the rest of society tend to steer them towards different modes of mobilization. However, the overarching classifications for the groups and the sets of action types also tend towards probabilistic explanations. Moreover, they suggest a form of hierarchical continuity between more organized and less organized groups, and between styles of action that are easier or harder for them to access. The works of Charles Tilly since the 1990s have provided an enlightening distinction between the major historical repertoires of contestation, and the more restricted tactical repertoires accessible to each social group at a given moment. However, in either case [16] and despite the strategic constraints, the leaning towards a type of performance from the available range is always presented as the actors’ choice. Here, I argue that for the triggering of a sequence of collective action, these approaches often underestimate the power of the constraints exerted by a given situation, making a method of action so obvious that it is hardly a matter of choice. Moreover, the aim of this article is not to understand how rioting entered a group’s repertoire of possibilities, but rather how this mode of action (already partly formed at the start of the 1980s) came to be mobilized at certain precise moments.

10I will therefore supplement these tools with an approach focused on the coordination of actors whose concerns are varied, and on the way in which a trigger indicator pushes them to act. I will refer to the analytical schemas for the construction of reality proposed by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. [17] The construction of the trigger indicator is, like the construction of many aspects of reality (of many institutions, in the broad sense), the product of an objectivization process, then of the interiorization of an association of ideas that, in the rewriting of its conditions of emergence, becomes obvious to the individuals. I will therefore begin by emphasizing two essential elements.

11Firstly, although it sometimes appears natural, there is no reason why the connection between blunder and riot should be self-evident. In order to understand it, we must reconstruct the circumstances in which it was constructed.

12Secondly, like all collective action, rioting relies on a convergence of behaviors, an objective organization in which most of the individuals take into account what the others are doing, in more or less elaborate forms of calculation. This is shown by David Haddock and Daniel Polsby in an article on the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, in which they describe the dynamics based on Thomas Schelling’s focal points. These points of convergence for the reciprocal expectations and anticipations of the actors, which may take the form of incidents, allow the production of assumptions as to what others will do. [18] They can constitute the situational opportunities that, according to Randall Collins, when recognized by individuals, lead to interaction processes that produce violent actions. [19] When a collective action is already visible or expected, the actors are placed in a reflexive situation, in which anything salient might potentially be held up as a signal, in a calculation based on others’ assumed reasoning. However, to shake actors out of their ordinary everyday habits, signals with very objectivated significance, thought to be shared by others, are required. Without them, the situation would become mired in uncertainty. Recognizing such markers requires a practical awareness that is sometimes the privilege of specific social groups. It is the construction of these markers (which I will call “typical trigger indicators”, with reference to Berger and Luckmann) that interest us here.

The history of a riot trigger indicator: defining elements

13Although it refers to diverse phenomena, the expression “suburban riots” is regularly associated with a few specific traits. Firstly, its common definition is part of a continuum of labels for similar acts (some of which are to be found well before the 1970s in “ordinary” protests). In certain urban areas where individuals are habitually involved in group acts of violence and material damage, the “petty criminality” described in the press becomes “incidents” or “mini-riots” when the visible acts are numerous, and “riots” when they involve groups of individuals who are clearly outside of the usual “delinquent cores”. [20] We therefore see tens or even hundreds of “youths” engaged in small group arson of vehicles and bins, throwing stones at windows, policemen and firemen, frontal attacks on police stations, etc. In these cases, the press often evokes “rioters” or “demonstrators”, contributing to the second element of this definition: the political dimension that the expression gives to the events. The regular evocation of a socio-political message behind the riots cannot be ignored in the calculations of the participants, even if this political dimension is constructed in a process where it is constantly challenged by the numerous criminal intentions ascribed to the actors. However, whether these actors are driven by organized criminal desires to chase the police out of trafficking sites, by politicized agitators who are “not from the estate”, by frustration with living conditions in the suburbs concerned, or even by sincere anger at the death of a friend or family member, whatever the intentions and levels of reflexivity, actually proceeding to action requires agreement on coordinating indicators. These indicators, which are organizational pillars, are also restrictive in that they influence the possible modes of reaction.

14One example is the typical and widely recognized scenario frequently leading to the outbreak of riots, where one or more young people from a given neighborhood are killed in a situation directly or indirectly involving one or more police officers. [21] By unpicking a history of this indicator, my approach aims to provide a better understanding of the triggering forces, whilst leaving aside the motivations of the actors, their cynicism, or their sincerity.

Indications and conditions of the institutionalization of the trigger indicator

15Since the late 1970s, I have taken an interest in the development of events in the Est lyonnais suburbs. My main observation is that in the 1980s and 1990s, in several stages, the connection between deaths of young people involving the police and the outbreak of riots became stronger. Yet on the surface, this connection is far from obvious. Contrary to the common belief that might inspire a retroactive reading of the many articles on criminality in the Est lyonnais in the 1970s, deaths of young people who lived there, sometimes directly involving the police, occurred without any particular violent response. Until the end of the 1980s, the most frequent scenario was that such “accidents” were followed only by families bringing court cases or by silent marches. On two occasions, the response involved riots or mini-riots, in cases where several practical conditions came together to facilitate these nocturnal protests: weekends, school holidays, good weather, etc. Reactions were only seen in cases where the location or conditions of the death favored early spreading of information in the neighborhood, allowing significant and explicit coordination by the actors. However, after a few repeats of the “blunder-riot” scenario, an institutionalization of the indicator seems to have developed, with the actors knowing for certain that collective actions would follow, giving greater incentive to “be part of it”. This institutionalization of the indicator makes it a tacit point of coordination that influences the calculations so strongly that it leads to action that very evening, even if the practical conditions evoked above are not met. Thus, in the 1990s, riots broke out following all the “blunders”, generally less than 24 hours after the death, even in extremely cold conditions.

16Let us note that this method, just as it leaves aside the rioters’ motivations, also does not look to establish whether the blunder was real or not. Nevertheless, we must recognize the importance for the move to action of different versions of the death circulating locally, sometimes competing with one another, in mediatized controversies where police involvement and lying are constructed as justifications for the action. Moreover, from the 1990s, we see the gradual disappearance of these controversies as preconditions for action: a further indication of the objectivization of the trigger indicator.

17Nor can we ignore the role played locally by several actors and associations who, without engaging in riots, contributed to this objectivization through their work in turning blunders and racist violence into activist causes and objects of memory. Finally, the theory developed here does not argue that the Rhône example alone is sufficient. This case is both an initiator and a model for a dynamic that arises in very similar ways in many areas of France. Although my work focuses on the suburbs of Lyon, I also look at riots elsewhere in France and abroad, which the media consulted present in unifying terms, with potentially powerful effects on the Rhône example. The process of unifying various collective violent acts largely relies on explicit media comparisons and on the recurring use of terms commonly employed by the press: “riotous climate”, “Maghrebi youths”, and “council estates” for the French example. The mediatization of “riots elsewhere” outside of the Rhône has an even greater effect on Lyon’s potential rioters (and vice versa) because it contributes to a selective diffusion of information. If young people in Rhône neighborhoods generally know about a local blunder, they only hear of an incident in another region, or exceptionally in the United States, if it is followed by rioting. This selective mediatization, rightly or not, contributes to the impression that the indicator is strongly established elsewhere and that all blunders are followed by reactions. This creates (sometimes mutual) evaluation relationships between several zones, a phenomenon that contributed to the spreading of the 2005 riots.

18In the pages that follow, I will therefore describe the local construction and institutionalization of a typical trigger indicator, from its emergence in the imagination as a potential rallying signal to its systematic take-up. However, before doing so, I will describe the methodology of the investigation.

Methodology: studying a daily newspaper from the Rhône Department

19The case studied here is that of the inner suburbs of east and southeast Lyon: the subject of much mediatization of “urban violence” (Vaulx-en-Velin, Vénissieux, Bron, etc.; see map in Appendix).

Choice of media and information covered

20I studied the archives of local daily newspaper Le Progrès. The area and media type were chosen because of the pioneering role of the Rhône department in the history of suburban riots, and the accessibility of information on these communities. Le Progrès offers one of the richest records for studying the geographical and media concentration of common criminal acts and rioting in the Est lyonnais. This was my main criterion in selecting material. This does not mean (as we will see later) an absence of mechanisms of selection, misrepresentation, and rewriting connected with journalists’ working conditions and evolving over time. [22] However, many details and accounts, and the extreme frequency of information on “minor” incidents (accidental power box fire, occasional throwing of stones at buses with no casualties, etc.) suggest that the daily newspaper is an appropriate resource for my research. This research involved exhaustive study of the covers and local pages of the newspaper, from 1979 to 1996. [23] The consultation of each article mentioning potentially relevant events (acts of collective criminality, death or injury of a young person whatever the conditions, etc.) was filtered through an interpretive framework designed to reconstruct several elements. Aside from the different versions and accounts of the facts (which varied in credibility), the most useful pieces of information were:

21– The conditions and time of a young person’s death (if death occurred), and the presence of other people with them who, depending on the site of the accident and whether they were injured or arrested, might or might not pass on information rapidly in the neighborhood.

22– The conditions, the interval before, and the time of any subsequent outbreak of collective action.

23– The practical conditions for mobilization, namely the weather, [24] and whether it was a weekend or school holiday.

24It is worth pointing out that these variables, which will be used again later in two tables, are above all a set of indicators showing that the “blunder-riot” link was so institutionalized in the 1990s that it meant most obstacles to collective action were overcome. These indications do not aim to explain this institutionalization, which as we will see, was based on the construction of a collective memory of violence, to which the media and associations contributed. However, several possible explanations have been eliminated, such as changing political and administrative ways of dealing with subjects connected to “urban violence” in the period studied. One of the most identifiable turning points is the violence categorization work by the Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux (Central Directorate of General Intelligence), published by Lucienne Bui Trong at the start of the 1990s. [25] This decade also saw the emergence of more offensive police pre-intervention strategies in certain neighborhoods. It is tempting to attribute the growth in rioting to this evolution of risk management. However, these techniques do not really seem to have been implemented following the deaths in the Est lyonnais until 1994 onwards. Before this, the violence reported following deaths generally began in contexts of police absence or withdrawal. Although the new police strategies struggled to prevent riots breaking out, it would therefore be misguided to see this as the cause of their systematization. [26]

The material and its limitations and effects

25My initial concern was to collect factual information. However, this quickly led me to make observations about the discrepancy between some of the occurrences described and the journalists’ sensational wording about the “riotous climate”. The divergence was sometimes so glaring that it allowed me, by crosschecking occasionally with other media in which the same phenomenon was often reported, to draft a critique of my source, using the source itself. This yielded a second use for my press analysis, which looks at the supposed local effects of methods of mediatizing the event. In the absence of an in-depth study on reception, it is impossible to precisely describe these effects, because there can be so many different ways of receiving a media message. [27] Nevertheless, we would be justified in making some modest deductions: the discrepancy mentioned, whatever its journalistic conditions of production, contributed over the years to making rioting a reaction to blunders that was at least plausible in the eyes of many locals. It also contributed a posteriori to the overevaluation of riot movements in the 1980s, which characterizes many subsequent works on the subject.

26From 1997 to 2000, the digitization of Le Progrès made keyword searching possible. [28] The decision not to continue beyond this period was motivated by an observation that will be presented later in this study: at the end of the 1990s, the typical trigger indicator that interests us here could hardly have been more institutionalized, although it is possible that there might have been some reversals of the trend in later years.

27It was sometimes necessary to differentiate between deaths that had or did not have “reasons” for contributing to the definition of the trigger indicator studied, and for crystallizing the expectations and anticipations of young people from a given neighborhood: would the potential actors see this death as meriting such a reaction? This distinction was made based on available indications regarding the conditions of death, the victim’s age and place of residence, etc., without particularly taking into account the network of relationships. This was because I gradually noticed that direct acquaintance with the deceased was not necessary for participation in the riot. The main fear connected to this distinction was of falling into tautological reasoning in which the criteria (by definition unclear in the 1980s and selfevident in the 1990s, but difficult to piece together several decades afterwards) [29] would serve to retain only those facts that confirmed my intuitions and exclude those that contradicted them. The core of my strategy to avoid this pitfall was to adopt in advance a particularly extensive definition of the deaths, severe injuries and other events that might potentially be defined as a trigger event. The only occurrences not included were the deaths of those who, even if they were associated a priori with the others in various publications recording the blunders or racist crimes, manifestly had no connection with the Est lyonnais youth, neither in terms of age, nor the origin of the deceased, nor their place of death. Homicides that did not implicate members of the police force were included in the analysis of the press, although not all of them will be mentioned here.

The “riot climate” imaginary (1979-86)

28Current sources situate the start of rioting in the French suburbs in the 1970s, citing for example the violence reported in 1971 in the Cité des 4000 in La Corneuve (93). Newspaper pages from this decade concerning these communities in the Est lyonnais already contain many reports on violent crime, muggings, car theft, joyriding and criminal damage.

Police, collective violence and anti-racist rallies (1979-83)

29However, it was in September 1979 that the first events widely described as “riots” occurred in this area, in La Grappinière, a neighborhood of Vaulx-en-Velin. The police attempted to arrest an adolescent, who was hiding with neighbors and had seriously injured himself. There were several competing versions, from policemen initially asserting that he had taken the neighbors hostage, and from other neighbors saying that the officers handcuffed the adolescent and dragged him outside the building, without concern for his heavy blood loss. Many of these inhabitants, of various ages, defended the adolescent in a fight, when insults and projectiles were hurled at the police. [30] This immediate reaction was very different to the riots in the following decades, in its styles of action, the participant profiles and the conditions of its organization, even though years later it would be seen as part of the same series.

30In the following years, the local Rhône press and the press from other regions continued to publish articles mentioning growing violence by gangs of “Maghrebin youths” [31] or “foreigners” who were fighting in the suburbs of French cities, burgling, and attacking passers-by, bus drivers, and sometimes police officers. Car torching was initially rare, or rarely reported, and described using the pathological image of “pyromania” in relative disconnection from other kinds of violence. [32] During the summer of 1980, the “Rhône” pages of Le Progrès reported attacks, racketeering, car theft, or vandalism almost every other day in Vaulx-en-Velin, Villeurbanne or Décines. In the commune of Vénissieux, until then relatively unaffected according to the press and police accounts, “several dozen youths attack[ed]” a police vehicle in order to stop the officers taking them to the station. [33] 1981 was marked by the mediatization of many violent mobilizations, for example in Morocco and West Germany in June, and the English riots in London, Liverpool and Manchester that made headlines in April and July. Many articles saw it as a source of inspiration explaining the “turbulent” summer that followed. There were almost daily reports on “groups of youths from the priority urban development zone of Les Minguettes in Vénissieux [or from Villeurbanne, who] made throwing stones at police vehicles and buses from the many empty residences their favorite pastime”, and on the emergence of “joyriding and vehicle torching”. [34]

31Yet these were the acts of several individuals at once, who hid or fled. They did not particularly occur in reaction to the death of a young person from the neighborhood, like in July when Daniel Zanuda was killed in Vaulx-en-Velin by an inhabitant who said he could no longer tolerate his young neighbors. Local reactions, in particular a rally in front of the police station, were peaceful. [35] A demonstration followed. In late September 1982, near the Saint-Jean estate (Bron), a man shot two young “Maghrebis”, killing one of them. Ahmed Boutelja died in the ambulance, “while on the little square of the Saint-Jean estate, the Maghrebin population began gathering and shouting in anger”. The police “were able, with tact and composure […] to restore calm”. [36] On Thursday 28 October, a “young North African” from Vaulx-en-Velin was shot in Lyon by a man who said he saw him trying to steal his BMW. The affair, rapidly presented by the press as a “drama of self-defense” in a way that was favorable to the gunman, did not seem to provoke any incidents. High school friends held a silent demonstration. [37] The collective reactions were therefore limited to routine modes of action. Of course, acts of violence were recorded on other occasions:


“As spring arrived in 1983, three days running, police intervening in front of a tower block in the Monmousseau neighborhood (Les Minguettes, Vénissieux) had cobblestones, planks and Molotov cocktails thrown at them from the windows of the building. The police commissioner decided to carry out a raid in the tower block, aiming to find the items connected to various crimes committed over recent days. About fifty officers were sent in on Monday 21 March. While some raided homes, ‘their colleagues below struggled to stop two hundred to three hundred youths invading the tower block. When the police in the upper floors came out of the building at around 11:30 am, protected by colleagues in helmets with shields, a real war of abuse broke out. Projectiles rained down from all sides, and expertly made Molotov cocktails were even thrown at police vehicles. Around ten officers were injured’”. [38]

33The challenge to police authority [39] seen in these acts does not mean they can be directly connected to the riots in the 1990s. In this incident, the outbreak of the action was closely linked to resistance following several acts of delinquency. It was therefore organized by people connected to these acts, through explicit coordination made possible by the large numbers of empty homes in the building. These were perfect for hiding, keeping watch and throwing projectiles. Most of those present probably joined the movement without knowing of its organization, [40] and the crowd described by journalists was unconnected with the small groups involved in the subsequent riots. The “two hundred to three hundred youths” are presented as a presence creating widespread pressure. The acts listed and the involvement in physical fighting were the work of a small minority, as observed by Randall Collins for this type of movement. [41] We can make similar observations about more recent riots, but division into smaller units (sometimes called “urban guerrilla tactics”) is a style of action distinct from that of March 1983. It also tends to increase the proportion of actors who actually use violence.

34In the following days, eleven young “immigrants” organized a hunger strike to protest in particular against their everyday treatment by the police. Local figures presenting themselves as able to “channel” the young peoples’ battle offered them public support. In early April, the strikers were received by several local figures of authority, then at the Élysée Palace. They ended the hunger strike and created the SOS Avenir Minguettes association, [42] which participated in the major demonstrations against racism in 1983, and in the March for Equality. It also contributed to making “racist crimes” and police violence and blunders into an activist cause for anti-racism associations. [43] This appropriation was legitimized, among other occasions, when a police dog handler fired a shot in controversial circumstances, injuring Toumi Djaidja, the association’s president. [44]

Targeted reprisals in the neighborhood and a “riot climate” in the newspapers (1983-86)

35Among the crimes mentioned above, we find those of many “mad gunmen” shooting down young neighbors in various French council estates in the summer of 1983. [45] In this year, and more generally in the mid-1980s, like the rest of the country the Est lyonnais saw several police “blunders” or deadly shootings committed by neighbors, followed by the same paradox in the press:

36– No particular act of violence was reported in the following days, except in certain cases where the acts were limited to targeted reprisals against the killer evacuated by the police, or against their home or their car, a few projectiles thrown from a window, and one case of scuffles in a bar between a few young people and CRS riot police officers. [46]

37– However, the fantasy of a “riot climate” [47] (inspired by past “riots” in the Rhône that were connected to a death, and preceding incidents in other countries such as that of December 1982 following a police blunder in Florida) was maintained by sensational rhetoric on the “severe tension” and the omnipresent risks of violence exploding. This does not mean that the “tensions” were necessarily a purely journalistic invention. [48] The expression was generally accompanied by a lack of description of concrete facts, but depending on the cases, these tensions could include trading of insults between young people and police officers posted on site, the throwing of a few projectiles, or sometimes just mockery.

38The disparity between facts that are very difficult to establish and the supposedly “extreme tension” was at its greatest following the death of Pierre Daubert, a young “traveler” driving a stolen van, who was killed by a police officer in September 1983. [49] This discrepancy lays down the premises for the construction of the typical indicator that interests us. Where the blunder does not necessarily lead to rioting, the manifest fear and expectation of a riot spread the idea that it is a likely response. In the absence of detailed knowledge of the reception processes, it would be simplistic, to say the least, to attribute the power of spreading this idea to the media alone. However, several critical articles show that the discrepancy mentioned above does not only exist in newspapers.


“Rightly or not, the slightest incident to occur there now takes on a particular resonance. Les Minguettes coughs; policemen, educators, deputies, high officials and even ministers catch a cold […] As spring turned to summer, the events that took place overnight between Saturday and Sunday tend to remind us of the darkest nights in the history of the priority urban development zone. Those which in 1981 made Les Minguettes infamous all over France. And yet, if we take them out of their geographical context, they seem considerably less interesting, if not less serious.” [50]

401985 clearly confirms the non-institutionalization of the trigger indicator that interests us, through the absence of rioting following the death of fifteen-year-old Barded Barka.


“On Wednesday 6 March at around 3:30 pm, Barka rode a moped close to two local police officers near his home, north of Vaulx-en-Velin, not far from La Grappinière. ‘A few meters further on, he fell off his moped and struggled to get up, with a severe wound to his head that was bleeding heavily.’ He died in hospital on Friday morning after over a day in a coma. There are various versions of the facts. According to the police officers, the moped caught on the belt of their transmission equipment, which got trapped in the wheel, causing the victim to fall and hit his head against a wall. ‘This version is contested by the family and the witnesses, all neighbors, who claim that the peace officer deliberately struck the victim with his walkie-talkie, hitting him hard on the head, as if to stop him in his tracks’. [51] The controversy was then fueled by the mediatization of the uncertain autopsy results.” [52]

42Articles over the following days confirmed a disparity between the imagined risk of a riot or “riotous climate” and the facts. Following the accident, “in the Maghrebi community […] emotions were already running high in the area. They intensified […] over the days that followed”. However, once again, the concrete reactions were two “calm” demonstrations. [53] Generally, 1985 saw the continued appropriation of protests against racist police crime and violence [54] by recently founded associations, such as SOS Racisme (SOS Racism) or the Jeunes Arabes de Lyon et de sa banlieue (The Young Arabs of Lyon and its Suburbs), always favoring non-violent kinds of action (demonstrations, concerts, events, etc.).

The conditions for rioting: a proto-indicator with variable effects (1985-90)

43A comprehensive approach to the absence of rioting following the death of Barka would require study of his position and his relationships in the neighborhood, to find ad hoc explanations. However, I will follow the objectivization and long-term approach here, as outlined in the introduction. The articles from the following years justify this approach for two main reasons. Firstly, they confirm the theory of a wide range of motivations among the young people joining the future riots: the emergence of a trigger indicator is above all that of a point of coordination, the use of which is not necessarily encumbered by particular sentiments on the part of the actors towards the victim of the blunder. However, the subsequent facts also show a correlation between rioting and the most trivial practical conditions, which I will look at here.

Blunder, low season, and high season

44Despite it being a weekend and there being an absence of rain, the period from Friday 8 March to Sunday 10 March was not very conducive to collective action. The weather was cool (a maximum of 8 to 10oC in Vaulx-en-Velin and 2 to 3oC at night) and the school holidays did not begin until 23 March. These elements are not a sufficient basis for a definite explanation, but we will see that in 1985 they formed a preliminary stage in the construction of a trigger indicator, which in the second half of the 1980s required optimum conditions for action to become rioting.

45On Thursday 6 March 1986, 22-year-old Mustapha Kacir was killed in the Parc de la Tête d’or (on the border between Lyon and Villeurbanne), by police officers who suspected him of stealing a van, as he tried to flee arrest. Several figures, such as Charles Hernu, mayor of Villeurbanne, immediately supported the police officers. However, it turned out that they had shot Kacir in the back several times as he fled. [55] Once again, the conditions prevented nocturnal turnouts and torching of cars. Temperatures in the three days that followed were 7 to 10oC in the afternoon, and below zero during the night. There was no particular act of collective violence over these days.

46At the end of 1986, it was the national news of the movement against the Devaquet Law along with the violence following the death of Malik Oussekine in Paris after he was beaten by police officers that contributed to the association between police blunders and collective violence. The process took place in several phases. Firstly, at the time of the event, by the spreading of many images of one mode of action, often blamed on “hooligans” outside of the movement, [56] and sometimes justified as a reaction to the “police violence” supported by the state institutions. The incident reflected the international standards for riot action methods.


“28 people arrested, 58 police officers injured (including two seriously injured), 21 broken windows and 20 torched cars […] After the order to disband was given at 9 pm by the students, the organized demonstration in memory of Malik Oussekine gave free rein to isolated groups of youths, some of whom were ‘independent’ and had already been involved in the protests of the 1970s […] It was in the Latin Quarter that there was a repeat of the incidents of Thursday night, with minibarricades, torched cars, shop windows broken, shop fronts pillaged, and continuous harassment of the police forces by throwing a wide variety of projectiles.” [57]

48Later on, the inclusion of Oussekine in the same lists as the young people mentioned above also led to an association between blunder and collective violence.

49Although these events played a role in constructing the indicator, it would be wrong to see them as proof of its prior institutionalization. Here, the death did not strictly speaking trigger an outbreak, but rather it led to an escalation of violence observed over several days around student demonstrations. Moreover, a few hours before the death of Oussekine, Abdel Benyahia, “a young Maghrebi, aged twenty [from the Cité des 4000 in La Corneuve (93)], was shot in Pantin by a police officer”. As in the preceding cases, the articles on the estate where “anger rumbled” are marked by the widespread fear of riots that would in fact not happen”. [58]

50In the Est lyonnais, the next deadly “blunder” took place in June 1987. On the night of Wednesday 17 to Thursday 18, at around 2:30 am, burglars were reported in a shoe warehouse in Corbas. Shortly afterwards, two individuals in a car escaped a police roadblock in conditions that sparked debate. According to police accounts, the officers fired as the vehicle sped towards one of them. The vehicle made a U-turn and ended up 600m away. The driver fled, but the passenger, quickly identified as 21-year-old Aziz Bouguessa, remained in the car, killed by a shot to the head. [59] During the night of Thursday to Friday, several incidents were reported in the “Brosses neighborhood” on the border between Mions and Corbas, next to the road where Bouguessa died.


“At around 1 am, the Saint-Priest Fire Brigade were alerted that three cars were on fire on Chemin des Colières in Mions. They arrived in the Les Brosses neighborhood, along with the police. They were immediately attacked by several demonstrators, some of whom were hooded and armed with cobblestones, stones and steel balls. No arrests were made at ‘these incidents that lasted just over an hour’”. [60]

52The conditions were favorable: the arrival of sunny spells after several rather rainy weeks, warm temperatures (a minimum of 11oC on the night of the death and the following night), long days, summer holidays officially starting in just over a week, but which had actually already started in most establishments. However, above all, the events of March 1987, through their local mediatization, again participated in the emergence of a typical trigger rather than demonstrating its pre-existence. Their configuration substantiates the idea of a “riot” for which almost all of the participants made explicit prior agreement. The small size of the “Les Brosses estate” from which Aziz Bouguessa came (one street, two buildings, a few houses and “a travelers camp”, totaling around three hundred inhabitants) and the late timing of the incidents allow us to suppose that the evening provided time to arrange and prepare the brief action. [61] The facts themselves should not be overinterpreted: behind the vagueness of the articles on what looked like a development of the “riotous climates” that had been suspected for several years, the number of participants, which is unspecified, was limited. The damage, fires and attacks listed could only be attributed to around ten, or at most around twenty, people. In the days that followed, demonstrations were organized, once again based on politicized associations making the battle theirs. [62]

53The late 1980s were an intermediary stage in a process that, despite the differences in methods, rhythm, and reciprocal effects, shows common traits in the Rhône and other areas of France. We can already see an association of ideas with a somewhat “lax” state allowing an incident to erupt when the implication of a police officer is combined with optimum practical conditions (time of year, weather, conditions of the spreading of information) supporting the explicit work of coordination. In any case, this is what emerges from the objectivization of the data collected.

Table 1

Conditions and potential rioting consequences of young people’s deaths involving police officers in the inner Est lyonnais suburbs (1980-90)

Table 1

Conditions and potential rioting consequences of young people’s deaths involving police officers in the inner Est lyonnais suburbs (1980-90)

54In 1990, the optimum conditions coincided with the death of 26-year-old Zedig Sebihi, on the night of Wednesday 4 July in Vaulx-en-Velin, without consequences.

“The young biker, who had just refused a check and was being chased by police officers, went over a white line and hit a police van coming from the opposite direction. Toll: one dead, two injured…” [63]
The time of day and the absence of friends who might have escaped hindered the spreading of information. It is also tempting to attribute the absence of reported violence in the following days to the fact that the victim was little known or unknown in the neighborhood. This is at least what we are led to think, since it is impossible to find traces of this death in publications listing blunders, or in other subsequent documents.

The birth or recognition of an institution: October 1990 in Vaulx-En-Velin

55We see the ideal conditions in Vaulx-en-Velin following the death on 6 October 1990 in the neighborhood of Mas-du-Taureau of “Thomas Claudio, 21, the youngest of a family of nine children of Spanish origin, disabled in both legs”. On a Saturday afternoon at around 3:30 pm, while he was a passenger on a motorbike, its path was blocked by a police car, which according to young people in the neighborhood who contested the official version of the accident, “swerved to block the bike”. Thomas Claudio died within minutes. The weather that weekend was warm, with temperatures between 13 and 21oC depending on the time, and a clear sky on potential rioting days. The press emphasized the “unexpectedness” of the large-scale local reaction in a community where proactive policies had supposedly improved matters. On 8 October the event hit the headlines of Le Progrès.


Clashes with the fire service and law enforcement bodies. Throwing of stones. Vehicles and shops burned and looted. Riot scenes. It looked like history repeating itself… Nine years after Vénissieux, Vaulx-en-Velin erupted this weekend. The cause: a deadly traffic accident, seen as a ‘blunder’ by part of the population who were sick of ‘hassle’ from the police.
In the evening following the accident, from around 9:30 pm, a few cars were torched. The number of individuals responsible varies between articles and sources, from one to several dozen. Nevertheless, these sources agree on the fact that the police initially chose not to intervene, and to remain inconspicuous.
This ‘low-presence’ choice might explain the effect of surprise that worked in favor of the agitators [the next day, Sunday] shortly before 3 pm. In the space of a few seconds, a series of violent acts triggered the riot. A hooded man on a scooter fired a shot into the air with a pump action shotgun, then a car ram-raided a branch of Intermarché, breaking the store window, and finally the Mas-du-Taureau shopping center (a complex covering several hundred square meters) was set on fire. In front of several hundred onlookers observing from the windows of the surrounding tower blocks, and with the small number of CRS riot police not quick enough to react, an urban guerrilla scenario unfolded. With windows smashed and shops looted, it was difficult to tell onlookers from demonstrators among the hundreds of people present.
Fires and damage were reported in the following days in neighboring communities, and the events went on for several days. The main types of action identified were the torching of cars, pillaging of shops and small groups throwing stones at the police and the fire brigade.” [64]

57At the time, several explanations were offered for the scale of the events: the recent arrival of new police staff who were “hassling” the local youth and the role of agents provocateurs from outside the community who actively participated in smashing certain windows.


“The 400 demonstrators were divided into around twenty highly mobile small groups, led by men who were older than the majority of the protesters, and had come from other communities in the conurbation and the region. According to reliable sources, it seems that they tapped into the anger of the Vaulx-en-Velin youth. What might have been their motives? There are several hypotheses. The most realistic seems to be that drug and burglary networks, based in Vaulx-en-Velin, had been recently dismantled by the police, and individuals belonging to these networks wanted vengeance and an opportunity to fill their coffers.” [65]

59Above all, we should remember two points. First of all, the limited number of actors on the Saturday evening and the relatively sudden outbreak, at an unexpected time, of the Sunday’s events seem to indicate explicit coordination (whoever the “organizers” were: there are a wide range of interpretations regarding the role of the hooded men in the first incidents). Moreover, whatever the forces behind these actions, their scale and heavy mediatization (which drew on scenes of pillaging and the fire destroying the shopping center) were among the most important elements in constructing the trigger indicator of the “blunder” for the coming years.


“The adults said that each time there was a murder, the same thing would happen.” [66]

The police blunder as embedded trigger indicator (1990s)

61In the following months, news reports focused more frequently than before on collective violence and damage in the French suburbs.

Memory, recognition, and systematic response to an indicator

62Several scenarios presented as comparable to the Vaulx-en-Velin riots took place; for example in Sartrouville (78) in March 1991 and in Mantes-la-Jolie (78) in May and June 1991. At the same time, several times a week, Le Progrès reported attacks in the Est lyonnais that were explicitly connected to the modes of action used in the riots: “stone-throwing” at buses and police officers who were sometimes lured into ambushes, joyriding where police vehicles were hit, and torching of cars. Outside of cases following a death, these events rarely involved more than about fifteen individuals, with one or two vehicles burned.

63The memory of October 1990 and the confirming cases mediatized in the following months [67] allowed the trigger effect of the deadly blunder to become stronger. The “Vaulx-en-Velin” model was not simply a case of “media contagion” of an interpretive framework (“the blunder-riot cycle”) in the press. [68] It was a hardening, for the potential participants, of interpretive tendencies that had been locally established for several years. However, these tendencies were not based on an old objective reality. They relied largely on the mythology of a past where police blunders and riots were closely associated. This mythology was based on two main pillars.

64On the one hand, there were the printed and audiovisual media and other channels relaying the “riotous climate” of the 1980s. The articles and reports of the early 1990s often refer to these, situating the new events as a continuation of the past.

65The second pillar consisted of several actors and anti-racist associations harnessing efforts to transmit a memory of police blunders (generally mixed in with various racist crimes committed by inhabitants of the French suburbs) that became activist causes at the time of the act and during the trials. Among others, these included the survey work conducted by the MRAP (Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples: Movement against racism and for friendship between people) and of the antifascist movement REFLEX (Réseau d’étude, de formation et de lutte contre l’extrême droite et la xénophobie – Network for study, training and battle against the far right and xenophobia). In 1992, REFLEX’s review published a special edition establishing a chronology of “racist and security-related murders”, with content regularly used by the press and local associations. [69] The layout of this chronology lends itself to confusion between “police blunders” and other “racist crimes” of the past (separated only by a title, “When the bigots get to work…”), the targeted reprisals for which were sometimes also categorised as riots. [70]

66In the following years, each time a young death in the community involved police officers, it was rapidly followed by riots, whatever the practical conditions.

67Thus, on Thursday 28 October 1992, police were watching stolen BMWs found in a car park in Crémieu. At around 10 pm, two people got into one of them. Officers blocked the car park exit with their vehicle, and the two youths sped towards the roadblock. The police officers opened fire, killing eighteen-year-old M. Bahri, who lived in the La Thibaude neighborhood of Vaulx-en-Velin. His friend, from Décines, who suffered an eye injury, was placed in custody. Given the location and late time of the incident, most of the protagonists in the events that followed were not able to find out about the incident until daytime on the Friday. On that day at 7:30 pm, around a hundred young people (from the Thibaude neighborhood according to Le Progrès) “suddenly assembled” in front of the Vaulx-en-Velin police station, throwing stones and breaking windows. As the evening went on, there were reports of “complications” involving “scattered groups of assailants”, two gunshots fired at the police station, torched cars and a “spreading of the fever, because simultaneously, in Vénissieux, a first car was being burned. Two more vehicles would follow […]. Then, the BMW from which the shots had been fired earlier was found in flames. Still in Vénissieux, bin areas were also burned”. [71] Similar events followed on the Saturday evening, when several cars were burned in Vaulx-en-Velin, particularly in Mas-du-Taureau, and stone throwing was reported, including at the vehicles of the fire service who intervened and at buses, as well as actions in front of the same police station as the day before. There were a few more incidents on the Sunday evening. The deputy prefect for security would estimate that 150 to 200 young people participated in the actions of the weekend, when around thirty vehicles were torched. [72]

Table 2

Conditions and potential rioting consequences of young people’s deaths involving police officers in the inner Est lyonnais suburbs (1991-2000)

Table 2

Conditions and potential rioting consequences of young people’s deaths involving police officers in the inner Est lyonnais suburbs (1991-2000)

Objectivization of the indicator and flexible conditions for responding

68Although the acts of October 1992 were surely based on an element of explicit coordination, they nevertheless demonstrate the reinforcement of the indicator studied. They broke out early in the evening immediately after the news of the death spread, yet mobilized a large number of participants. Aside from the spreading of the action to several communities on the very first evening, another indication of this reinforcement is the low visible presence of controversy regarding the conditions of Bahri’s death. The controversy, if there was one, was not mediatized. [73] The publications listing blunders are even careful to point out that Bahri “was killed by the police as he was trying to get past a roadblock, driving a stolen BMW”. This version coincides with the statements of the police officers and is less favorable to the victim than those concerning the deaths in previous years. This can partly be explained by the absence of witnesses at the site, which was quite far away from the home neighborhood of the two young people in the BMW. Nevertheless, this news reached beyond the local area. Events unfolded as if the embedding of the trigger indicator (the police blunder) was accompagnied by a concentrated form of its objectivization: the fact in itself had become a recognized sign, and the subjective experience of a controversy regarding the “real” circumstances of the death was not required for the mobilising effect to be observed.

69The next case took place on the night of Monday 27 December 1993. On the 28th, Le Progrès wrote about a “rumor in the night about a joyriding incident gone wrong […] the police supposedly shot a car thief who they were chasing”. Shortly after 10 pm, “along the railway running alongside the neighborhood of Les Clochettes, at a site known as ‘La Champignonnière’” in Saint-Fons, near Les Minguettes, “the man being chased is reported to have got out of his vehicle to run away on Rue Descartes. A second individual was with him. At this point, the police officers used their guns and shot the runaway, who did not survive his injuries. His companion fell from the top of the cliff over the railway, and suffered only bruises.” We learn in the following issue that it was in fact four individuals who fled in the car, before one of them, 28-year-old Mourad Tchier, was killed. The officer who fired insisted that he felt threatened, because Tchier was brandishing an object he could not identify. Two other individuals, living in Bron, were caught by the police. One escaped (and probably played a role in spreading the news, even though he could not immediately be certain that Tchier had died).

70On the Tuesday evening, in the “area around Avenue Édouard-Herriot and Rue Jean-Jaurès in Bron, the incidents began at around 9 pm, with a series of stones thrown at several firefighting teams who were gathering on site to tackle a shop fire. Quickly called in to help, the police teams also found themselves immobilized by stone throwing.” On Wednesday at 2 pm, there was a “silent march in memory of Mourad”, attended by around two hundred people in Bron. That evening, also in Bron, there were further reports of cars and bins being burned, and of stones and plaster grenades being thrown at the police and fire brigade. [74] An estimated fifty people took part. The first evening of the violence came shortly after a snowy period. The maximum temperatures on this Tuesday 28 were 2oC in most communities of the Est lyonnais, and the lowest temperatures were around 0oC. As in the preceding case, in the first days, there were hardly any traces of controversy regarding the “real” circumstances of the death. Despite debates regarding the number of shots fired by the police officer, the version given by this officer and published in all the first articles does not seem to be contradicted. We might even wonder about the relevance of this variable, when rioting broke out no longer after a controversy, but before those involved knew the police version of events.

71A few months later, in Bron at around 1 am in the night of Wednesday 13 to Thursday 14 April 1994, a stolen car tried to get past a police blockade. The driver lost control, and the car hit trees and posts before flipping over, exploding and bursting into flames. The loss of control might be explained by the shot fired by a policeman who drew his weapon as he leapt to the side “to avoid being hit full force”. However, the first article in Le Progrès states that the shot did not hit the vehicle. Out of the six people in the car, two (residents of Bron) were killed, and the other four, three of whom were minors, were seriously injured.

72One of the deaths occurred late on the Thursday. It was a rainy day. On the next evening, Friday 15, in Bron and Vaulx-en-Velin there were reports of incidents, including the burning of several cars and a section of the Vaulx-en-Velin sports center when flammable bottles were thrown onto the roof. The police estimated around sixty youths in groups of around ten had taken part. Three of them, who were older than the average (24 to 28 years), had firearms and were suspected of acting as agitators. These individuals were arrested. There were similar incidents the following night, including an arson attack targeting a gym in Bron. The Bron-Parilly police station was rammed by a car. Some of the young people responsible came from Les Terraillons and Parilly. [75] Two torched cars were reported on Sunday evening.

73On Monday 18, at around 8 pm, there was a joyriding incident in Vaulx-en-Velin, in which two youths being chased by the police were seriously injured. On the same evening, two torched vehicles were reported, in Vaulx-en-Velin and Vénissieux. In the next few hours, one of the casualties, who lived in Vaulx-en-Velin, died. Further incidents and fires were reported on the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Nevertheless, they were not as widespread as on Friday 15. According to the press, this was because 600 police officers had been deployed to control the neighborhoods in question. [76]

74Here, we see the appearance of the final obstacles to the triggering power of the deadly blunder. On 14 and 15 April, the rain was responsible: although the embedding of the indicator overcomes cold temperatures, dry weather seems necessary for certain modes of action involving setting fire to various materials. The evening of Thursday 14, which was both cold and rainy, only postponed the action until the next day. On Tuesday 19 April, a police intervention of exceptional scale was reported. It must therefore be emphasized that this theory finds its limits in rare cases of extremely high mobilization of the forces of order. These theoretical limits are reached when the security forces are no longer a threat that potentially expose actors to the last resort (generally physical restraint), instead exerting truly effective and permanent control over all the action sites targeted. However, the outbreak of collective violence was not quashed that evening, which raises questions as to the real possibility of such physical control, a possibility globally dismissed by sociological research on individual and collective micro-resistance. [77]

75The following year, there was shared and strongly established recognition of the typical trigger. This once again led young people in the Est lyonnais to take part in many actions, following the mediatized death of 24-year-old Khaled Kelkal, a figure of the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe islamique armé, or GIA), connected to the wave of attacks in summer 1995. Kelkal, who was closely associated with the Est lyonnais suburbs, in Vaulx-en-Velin where he grew up, as well as in Bron and Villeurbanne, where some of his recent armed acts took place, was killed by the police in a small community in the department on the evening of Friday 29 September. Police measures were immediately deployed in the Est lyonnais. On Saturday 30, they were pelted with stones, and were unable to stop around fifteen cars being burned between 8 pm and 11 pm, particularly in Vaulx-en-Velin and Saint-Priest. The incidents continued in several neighborhoods of the eastern suburbs, where violence is often reported. Early on the Sunday afternoon, around two hundred youths were involved in small group clashes with the police in Mas-du-Taureau (Vaulx-en-Velin). Other violent incidents and fires were reported in the evening. [78]

76We should note that the “blunder-riot” scenario also arose in December 1997 in Lyon, in the Duchère neighborhood, with the death of 24-year-old Fabrice Fernandez in a police station. Here, more clearly than ever, that blunder was immediately admitted by the authorities and media reporting the facts, so there was again little controversy about the police version of events. [79]

77Finally, the typical indicator occurred again during the night of Thursday 10 June to Friday 11 June 1999:


“Two young people fleeing after a burglary were killed on the night of Thursday to Friday, in a terrible car accident, on a small departmental road in Marboz, a few kilometers north of Bourgen-Bresse. At around 3 am, the young burglars broke the window of a sports shop on Cour de Verdun, in the town center of the prefecture of Ain. They were surprised by a police patrol from the anti-crime brigade, and fled in a BMW stolen in Switzerland, at high speed in dangerous fog. The car hit trees and caught fire.” [80]

79Despite doubts about the identity of the victims, a connection was rapidly made with “the actions of several families in the Lyon region, particularly in Bron, who were worried about the disappearance of loved ones”. In the following days, the police investigated the possible role of a third accomplice, who was injured and went to hospital using a false identity. It was probably this accomplice, who came from Bron and was taken to hospital by his family (and who therefore went home first, or at least made contact with family), who spread the news early, allowing the “incidents” to begin in Bron around twenty hours after the accident: “Damage to buildings, broken windows, torched bins, fires in stairwells. And above all, fourteen cars torched. These reactions mobilized a large number of firemen, particularly between midnight and 2 am. Taken for targets, the fire brigade had stones and even Molotov cocktails thrown at them.” The data on the number of individuals responsible is limited, but mentions several tens of participants. The figures are realistic, given that ten individuals were arrested: a higher number than usual. [81]

Conclusion: typical trigger, typical reaction?

80I will attempt here to clear up several possible misunderstandings surrounding my approach. Firstly, choosing a historical treatment of the riots that leaves aside some of the micro-motivations for the outbreak of action does not mean I am denying their effects. On the contrary, my results actually complement the various micro-sociological approaches with a perspective that allows us to understand the knowledge on which the actors based their decisions and calculations. The knowledge shared in certain localities about the occurrence of the blunder leads to rioting, and constitutes an example that is informative in several respects.

81Blunders were not the only trigger for collective violence in the neighborhoods studied (comparable actions have occurred following raids, and later on New Year’s Eve), but their role as a trigger is strongly institutionalized and understood well beyond the participating groups. However, for blunders or for May 1 (Labor Day), [82] understanding that collective action is based on the recognition of an indicator constructed over a long period of time means understanding that, just like repertoires of action, moments of action are extremely restricted. This is not just due to strategic considerations or to the repertoire mastered by the group involved, but above all due to history and the difficulty of transforming the habits it has sculpted, which connect a given typical situation to a given typical action. Consequently, there is a close connection between blunders and riots, between Labor Day and its demonstrations, between reform projects in certain sectors or public companies and strikes, between potentially harmful local construction projects and petitions, etc. The approach of studying how individuals make choices within a repertoire of action is relevant throughout the duration of a mobilization, as the range of diverse and competing possibilities grows. However, if we look at the trigger stage for the first actions, it often appears more productive to examine how given situations restrictively impose the obvious choice of typical collective “reactions” on these individuals. These reactions are not just wordplay. They emphasize how far, despite the diversity of individual calculations and concerns, progressions from the absence to the appearance of mobilization leave little room for improvisation.


Map of places mentioned

figure im3

Map of places mentioned


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    Cf. among others the contributions of Laurent Mucchielli, Véronique Le Goaziou (eds), Quand les banlieues brûlent… Retour sur les émeutes de novembre 2005 (Paris: La Découverte, revised & expanded, 2007); or Michel Kokoreff, Sociologie des émeutes (Paris: Payot & Rivages, 2008).
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    Such as Hugues Lagrange in “Autopsie d’une vague d’émeutes”, in Hugues Lagrange, Marco Oberti (eds), Émeutes urbaines et protestations. Une singularité française (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2006), 37-58.
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    M. Kokoreff, Sociologie des émeutes, 9.
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    M. Kokoreff, Sociologie des émeutes, 55.
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    Cf. François Bonnet’s review, “Les émeutes dans la sociologie américaine”, Mouvements, 83, 2015, 138-44.
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    Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1978).
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    Or even if we retain the most approximate usages that confuse the repertoire and style of action. Cf. the responses of Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Michel Offerlé, “Retour critique sur les répertoires de l’action collective (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles)”, Politix, 81, 2008, 181-202; Olivier Fillieule, “Tombeau pour Charles Tilly: répertoires, performances et stratégies d’action”, in Olivier Fillieule, Éric Agrikoliansky and Isabelle Sommier (eds), Penser les mouvements sociaux. Conflits sociaux et contestations dans les sociétés contemporaines (Paris: La Découverte, 2010), 77-99.
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    Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge (London: Penguin, 1991).
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    David D. Haddock and Daniel D. Polsby, “Understanding riots”, Cato Journal, 14(1), 1994, 147-57 (151); Thomas Schelling, Stratégie du conflit (Paris: PUF, 1986), 78ff and 144ff.
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    For a police view of this continuity between the different forms of everyday criminality or vandalism and rioting, see Lucienne Bui Trong, “L’insécurité des quartiers sensibles: une échelle d’évaluation”, Cahiers de la sécurité intérieure, 14, Aug-Oct 1993, 235-47.
  • [21]
    The role attributed to these indicators does not mean that the subsequent reaction is “spontaneous” and automatic. Such witness statements as are available emphasize that some actors may become involved via a process of close interactions with the first police officers encountered following the trigger event, sometimes beginning with insults. The presence of Molotov cocktails is evidence of prior preparation by individuals who anticipate the possibility of mobilizing others. In some cases, knowing what to expect, these others “come to see” or join the movement in the heat of the moment. The diverse motivations of the actors do not prevent them from belonging to shared networks of acquaintances.
  • [22]
    The trivialization of car fires, for example, led to a trend in the period studied of them being mentioned less frequently.
  • [23]
    Almost exhaustive, to be precise, because the access limitations for the microfilm archives (limited number of bobbins per day, missing pieces) sometimes led to several weeks being missed, meaning that I had to rely instead on information summaries gleaned from later issues or in other newspapers. Understanding the conditions of the investigation requires an awareness of the restrictive procedures and access times for the microfilms, as well as the staff reactions to my repeated requests for the next roll, especially when they realized that I had absurdly resolved to read over fifteen years of a local newspaper. I frequently had to charm my way into obtaining a few more rolls than the authorized daily limit, sometimes with the library card of an acquaintance or of the person sitting next to me at the table.
  • [24]
    Cf. Sebastian Roché, Le frisson de l’émeute. Violences urbaines et banlieues (Paris: Seuil, 2006), 82-4. The local weather, unless clearly mentioned in the articles read, was consulted using the weather forecasts and cross-referenced against available data on the website of the French national meteorological service, Météo France. The site archives sometimes contradicted the information from the articles in my corpus.
  • [25]
    L. Bui Trong, “L’insécurité des quartiers sensibles: une échelle d’évaluation”.
  • [26]
    Other elements were tested, without any particular effect being attributable to them, such as the occurrence of mediatized sports events, festival days, or the end of Ramadan, often described by journalists as a time of tension. Moreover, contrary to a current theory, the fact that the deceased had an Arab name did not prove decisive.
  • [27]
    Cf. in particular the issue edited by Ludivine Balland, Clémentine Berjaud and Sandra Vera Zambrano, in Politiques de communication, 4, 2015.
  • [28]
    Any article containing at least one of the following terms was consulted: émeute, bavure, mort, décès, décédé, police, gendarmes, pierres, tué, violence, incendie, incendies, incendiée, incendiées, brûlé, brûlée, brûlés, brûlées, feu, feux, projectile, projectiles [riot, blunder, death, deceased, police, police officers, stones, killed, violence, burned, fire, fires, projectile, projectiles]; and one of these terms (names of particular areas): Villeurbanne, Vaulx, Décines Chassieu, Bron, Meyzieu, Priest, Vénissieux, Corbas, Mions, Rillieux.
  • [29]
    Due to the sometimes insufficient indications given by the presentation of the facts in the press. I also drew on various daily newspapers other than Le Progrès (and on televisual archives) to cross reference information written in a rush to publish the newspaper, and information that was unclear or contradictory. Equally, I consulted half a dozen websites and publications listing or paying tribute to the victims of “police blunders”, “racist attacks” and “racist crimes”, to check that I had found in the press all the cases mentioned by these sites. In fact, my analysis identified several deaths that were not mentioned in the press.
  • [30]
    Le Progrès, 17 and 18 September 1979; Le Parisien libéré, 17 September 1979.
  • [31]
    This approach to describing delinquents is regularly presented as self-evident in articles, contrasting “European and Maghrebi communities” in the “difficult neighborhoods” of the Est lyonnais. Cf. Le Progrès, 17 September 1980; 10 July or 13 July 1981.
  • [32]
    Cf. in particular Le Parisien, 31 July or 3 September 1980.
  • [33]
    Le Progrès, 29 July 1980.
  • [34]
    Le Progrès, 8 and 10 July 1981.
  • [35]
    Le Progrès, 18 July 1981.
  • [36]
    Le Progrès, 29 September 1982. The issue of 2 October states that young people from the estate, “to express their point of view and their own version of the facts […] decided to invite the mayor and his municipal council, heads of associations and journalists to listen to them, on Monday evening.”
  • [37]
    Le Progrès, 29, 30 October and 5 November 1982.
  • [38]
    Le Progrès, 22 March 1983.
  • [39]
    Abdellali Hajjat, “Rébellions urbaines et déviances policières. Approche configurationnelle des relations entre les ‘jeunes’ des Minguettes et la police (1981-1983)”, Cultures & Conflits, 93, 2014, 11-34.
  • [40]
    This would be emphasized in court by some of the young people arrested: “He was there by chance […] which doesn’t mean he didn’t sling stones at the police”, Le Progrès, 1 April 1983.
  • [41]
    Randall Collins, Violence. A Micro-Sociological Theory, 413-30.
  • [42]
    Le Progrès, 28 March and 7 April 1983.
  • [43]
    Le Progrès, 7 July 1983.
  • [44]
    Le Progrès, 20 and 21 June 1983.
  • [45]
    Le Progrès, 11, 14, 22, 29 July and 1 August 1983; Le Parisien, 11, 12, 13 and 29 July, 1, 3, 5 and 8 August 1983.
  • [46]
    As in the days following the death of seventeen-year-old Abdelhamid, shot by a neighbor in Les Minguettes, “accidentally” according to the gunman (Le Progrès, 22, 23, 24 and 26 November 1983). We can observe in the issue of 26 November that the main observed “wave” took place in the police services, with the police commissioner criticizing the action for “breaking with the tradition” of defense by the agents.
  • [47]
    The term “riot” in articles on the suburbs was thus already frequently used in the 1980s, even though Laurent Mucchielli situates the start of its regular usage in the 1990s: “Les émeutes urbaines dans la France contemporaine”, in Xavier Crettiez, Laurent Mucchielli (eds), Les violences politiques en Europe. Un état des lieux (Paris: La Découverte, 2010), 141-76 (142).
  • [48]
    Especially as the word has sometimes more recently been used euphemistically, accompanying the description of acts of varying severity. Cf. Laurent Mucchielli, “La mort, l’émeute et la police municipale de Woippy: essai de sociologie immediate”, in Jean-Louis Olive, Laurent Mucchielli, David Giband (eds), État d’émeutes, état d’exception. Retour à la question centrale des périphéries (Perpignan: Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, 2010), 669-88 (670).
  • [49]
    Le Progrès, 30 September and 6 October 1983. The article on his funeral mentions “vengeful passions and sentiments legible on the lips of those accompanying the procession”.
  • [50]
    Le Progrès, 4 June 1984.
  • [51]
    Le Progrès, 12 March 1985.
  • [52]
    Le Progrès, 14 March 1985.
  • [53]
    Le Progrès, 12 and 16 March 1985.
  • [54]
    Like the Ambrosi affair in 1984, or the expressly racist assassination committed in September 1985 by the bouncers at a Lyon nightclub. Here again, the events were followed by demonstrations, but no incidents were reported, in spite of publications maintaining the suspicion about the risks arising from the “climate of revolt which has affected the young Maghrebi community” (Le Progrès, 30 September and 1 October 1985). Peaceful actions were also organized following the shooting of Moroccans who were “making too much noise” in Puyen-Velay (43) (Le Progrès, 28 December 1985). In Vaulx-en-Velin, there were no reported incidents following the injury of a young person of “Maghrebi origin” who was shot by a gamekeeper in the evening of July 4 (Le Progrès, 6 July, 1985).
  • [55]
    Le Progrès, 7 and 10 July 1981.
  • [56]
    On 8 December, Le Parisien published an article on “hooligans” stopped by the police, showing that “there are not many students in their ranks”.
  • [57]
    Le Progrès, 8 December 1986.
  • [58]
    Le Parisien, 6, 8, 9 and 10 December 1986. The articles are favorable to the “young Maghrebi”, especially in Le Parisien where the journalists emphasize their role in revealing the facts in the face of the “total blackout on this affair lasting around 48 hours” organized by the police: “‘Yet another blunder against a young Maghrebi, we’re sick of it. We won’t stand by and be massacred like this!” In the Cité des 4000 in La Courneuve (93), the news published by Le Parisien on Saturday eventually filtered through yesterday despite the official silence.”
  • [59]
    Le Progrès, 19 June 1987.
  • [60]
    Le Progrès, 20 June 1987.
  • [61]
    Some people were therefore already able to contact Aziz’s friend who was driving the car. He was still on the run several days after the incident, but young people from the “estate”, questioned for articles on a protest in favor of launching a judicial inquiry, said they were reporting his point of view and that the car had made a U-turn before the deadly shot.
  • [62]
    Le Progrès, 23, 25 and 27 June 1987.
  • [63]
    Le Progrès, 6 July 1990. The injured victims were the passenger on the back of the motorbike and the van driver.
  • [64]
    Le Progrès, 8 October 1990; cf. also the archives of the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA).
  • [65]
    Le Progrès, 9 October 1990. Motivations connected to “hating the police” were also cited, and a high school pupil made reference to the strategic model of the intifada, which would be picked up in several articles to explain the simultaneous action of small, mobile groups. Cf. Le Progrès, 11 October 1990, in which sources and police statements lend weight to the idea that individuals “aged over 30” came by car from other departments to participate.
  • [66]
    Child questioned on site, 7 pm news on France 3, 8 October 1990, INA archives.
  • [67]
    In France, but also internationally, for example the events in Los Angeles in 1992, even if their scenario differs from the typical trigger studied here.
  • [68]
    Annie Fourcaut, “Crises des banlieues, politique de la ville et émeutes urbaines (1970-2005)”, e-lecture, version updated in November 2012, consulted at <>.
  • [69]
    “L’État assassine: meurtres racistes et sécuritaires”, REFLEXes, special edition no 1, 1992.
  • [70]
    This confusion is still seen today in the many blogs created in the 2000s, which largely rely on this review, as well as in many recent press articles (and sometimes research articles).
  • [71]
    Le Progrès, 10 October 1992.
  • [72]
    Le Progrès/Lyon matin, 11 October 1992; Le Progrès, 12 and 13 October 1992.
  • [73]
    We find only an attempt to prevent controversy by the prefecture and the press. Le Progrès, 10 October 1992.
  • [74]
    Le Progrès, 28, 29 and 30 December 1993.
  • [75]
    Le Progrès, 15 and 16 April 1994; Le Progrès/Lyon matin, 17 April 1994.
  • [76]
    Le Progrès, 19, 20 and 21 April 1994.
  • [77]
    Cf. among others Erving Goffman, Asiles. Études sur la condition sociale des malades mentaux et autres reclus (Paris: Minuit, 1968), 245 [Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates (New York: Anchor Books 1961)]; or James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
  • [78]
    Le Progrès/Lyon matin, 1 October 1995; Le Progrès, 2 October 1995.
  • [79]
    Le Progrès, 20, 21, 23 and 24 December 1997. Note that a comparable scenario occurred in Dammarie- les-Lys (77) one day before.
  • [80]
    Le Progrès, 12 June 1999.
  • [81]
    Le Progrès, 12, 13, 14 and 15 June 1999.
  • [82]
    In relation to which the institutionalization of demonstrations has been on an international scale for a much longer period, which we can situate approximately from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1940s. Cf. among others Danielle Tartakowsky, La part du rêve. Histoire du 1er mai en France (Paris: Hachette, 2005).

This article highlights the role of naturalized and binding “typical trigger signs” used by actors to coordinate before the outbreak of collective action. Examining the history of police blunders which triggered riots in the suburbs of Lyon allows us to better understand rioters’ calculations, motivations aside. In the early 1980s, riots were not “natural” reactions to police blunders. They increasingly occurred when certain conditions were met (good weather, a weekend, etc.). However, the repetition of the “police blunder – riot” scenario in this area and the construction of collective memory institutionalized the trigger sign such that in the 1990s each police blunder led to relatively coordinated riots.


  • outbreak
  • mobilization
  • riots
  • France
Alessio Motta
Alessio Motta is a doctoral student and teaching and research assistant (University of Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, CESSP: European Center of Sociology and Political Sciences). His thesis examines the triggers for collective protests. He edited Discriminations et carrières (Paris. Pepper/L’Harmattan, 2016). Since 2013, he has also been working with Pierre France on secret collective actions and the social treatment of “conspiracy theories” (CESSP-CRPS, Université Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, 14 rue Cujas, 75005 Paris).
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