The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s minorities are angry, too. But they’re mostly sitting out the yellow vest protests.

A sculpture of Marianne, a symbol of the French Republic, decorates the grounds of an outdoor theater in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Paris suburb where in 2005, the deaths of two teenage boys — one black, one Arab — sparked weeks of riots. (Guillaume Herbaut for The Washington Post)

Inside a covered market that cuts between peeling monoliths of public housing, middle-aged men gathered at a cafe on a late afternoon to play cards and sip steaming vials of mint tea. A good number were immigrants, most of Kurdish or Turkish heritage. And they identified with many of the grievances of France’s yellow vest protesters.

Transportation is also an issue here, the men noted. Although a new system is in the works, there’s still no direct commuter rail link from this Paris suburb to the city center, less than 10 miles away. And economic insecurity is ­ever-present. Unemployment is high. Many jobs pay only minimum wage, and supporting a family can be a struggle.

“The yellow vests? They are right,” said Recep Salmas, 54, a chauffeur who arrived in France from Turkey as a toddler and has lived in Clichy-sous-Bois since 1975. But Salmas hadn’t converged with the masses protesting on the Champs-Elysees. “I don’t want to die with a police bullet in my head,” he said.

Mohamed Isaoui, 18, was waiting for a ride near the market. He said that he recently dropped out of school to take a minimum-wage job at a factory and that he, too, supported the yellow vests. “They are right to protest,” Isaoui said. “But I can’t bring myself to join them,” he added.

Three months into the protests, the movement that has rocked French politics has remained largely rural, and largely white. The demands for greater economic equality and more attention for “forgotten France” have given scant attention to the economically distressed suburbs outside France’s major cities.

The yellow vests are quick to say that their grievances have nothing to do with identity — and certainly not whiteness. Their high-visibility vests are the ones all French motorists are required to keep in their vehicles.

But people in predominantly minority communities like this one say they don’t feel this is their fight.

In Clichy, at least, the reticence is linked to one of the last times France was convulsed by massive protests.

In October 2005, two teenage boys in Clichy — one black, one Arab — came upon a police van on their way home from playing soccer. The boys ran, the police chased them. The boys — Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, known since as “Zyed and Bouna” — ended up hiding in an electrical power substation, where they were electrocuted.

Their deaths sparked weeks of riots and civil unrest in public housing complexes across France. Protesters declared they were fed up with police brutality, racial discrimination and the perceived indifference of the French government. Burning cars and broken glass led to a national state of emergency.

“Every day, there was fire,” said Salmas, the chauffeur. He shook his head as he recalled the autumn of 2005. “It was catastrophic.”

The riots had political consequences, but not the sort Clichy residents might have hoped for. The backlash helped propel hard-line conservative Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency in 2007. Sarkozy had been interior minister in 2005 and made a name for himself hurling epithets at demonstrators on national television. “We’re going to blast this place clean with a water hose,” he said with tough-guy swagger.

No one has said the same of the yellow vests, who have protested for far longer, disrupted economic activity and vandalized beloved national monuments. Some within their ranks have physically attacked journalists, issued death threats against government officials and vowed to storm the Elysee Palace. A group recently swarmed around Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent Jewish intellectual, as he walked home on a Saturday afternoon. “Go back to Tel Aviv,” they said.

But the French government’s response has been to launch a two-month talking tour to take better stock of the anger behind the protests. President Emmanuel Macron has made concessions — postponing a planned fuel tax increase and raising the minimum wage. And, in a mid-December address, he apologized. “I also know that I happened to hurt some of you with my words,” he said.

Clichy residents note that in 2005, there was no apology, nothing that resembled Macron’s “grand débat” or any attempt to understand.

“The riots began with the death of two children, which was traumatic and entirely unacceptable,” said Clichy Mayor Olivier Klein. “The authorities didn’t provide the words of compassion that were needed, or take responsibility for their actions.”

Instead, protesters were silenced, sometimes with force.

The lesson of 2005 was clear, Salmas said. “The police don’t protect you — they protect themselves against you.”

“Since 2005, people have closed their mouths,” Salmas said. “We don’t have the right to say anything.”

Macron has tried to take his “grand débat” on inequality into the suburbs, hosting a town hall at Evry-Courcouronnes this month. He met with some 300 elected officials and local association leaders there. He also visited a job assistance agency, giving a nod to the issue of high unemployment in suburban communities. “You’ve seen all the young people who are around the table to prepare for their internship and their job tomorrow,” Macron told reporters. “They are the best ambassadors of our plan in the city.”

On the whole, the town halls across France have been quite popular — even if primarily as an opportunity to launch vitriol at the French president for hours. But the suburban events that didn’t feature a presidential visit have struggled to draw crowds anywhere near as large, especially among ordinary residents.

Klein, the Clichy mayor, noted that the loudest of the yellow vest protesters seem to be experiencing “déclassement,” a loss of ­middle-class status. In communities like his, however, that status has always been elusive.

“I have the impression that there’s a form of resilience here,” he said, “a form of solidarity and fraternity that’s perhaps stronger than in the periurban areas.”

Rokhaya Diallo, a French television host and activist for racial equality, was less positive in her assessment. “I think that people are hopeless, and they don’t feel that their concerns will be heard in any way,” she said.

In France, a country that does not officially recognize race or religion, the white citizen is also still considered the default, Diallo said. “Whiteness is not seen as an identity in France,” she said. “It’s neutral.” Because of this perception, few question the claim among yellow vests that they are entitled to speak for “the people.”

“We still live in that illusion of universalism, but it’s just a myth,” Diallo said.

Some French minorities fear they would be treated more harshly than white protesters by police.

Ten deaths have been linked to the yellow vest protests, but most of those have been the result of traffic accidents related to blockades. This month, the European Parliament condemned French authorities for using “flash ball” projectiles, a weapon that has maimed protesters, including Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the movement’s prominent figures. But so far, no yellow vests have died at the hands of police.

Yet minorities sometimes do. And so some Clichy residents are reluctant to put themselves at risk — especially when, once again, they may not see any political progress.

Isaoui was only a toddler during the 2005 riots, though they left an impression.

“I was small, but I remember a little,” Isaoui said. “People have told me. It’s always like that, conflicts between us and the police.”

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