What is behind the increase in gang violence in France?

A sign that reads in French, 'Yesterday... we all lost a child. A mother' is placed near flowers where a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed the day before by a person who fled with an accomplice, in Bondy, in Seine-Saint-Denis, on February 27, 2021.
A sign that reads in French, 'Yesterday... we all lost a child. A mother' is placed near flowers where a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed the day before by a person who fled with an accomplice, in Bondy, in Seine-Saint-Denis, on February 27, 2021. © Thomas Coex, AFP

France has been alarmed over recent weeks by a spate of killings of young people in gang violence in the Paris region during the school holidays. Experts say that the role of social media and the economic effects of the Covid-19 crisis are major factors behind this phenomenon.

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The most recent killing to shake France was that of Aymane, 15, who was shot in the troubled Seine-Saint-Denis suburbs outside Paris on February 26. He was the third teenager in less than a week to have died in gang violence in the Paris suburbs – with the alleged perpetrators, two brothers aged 17 and 27, charged on March 1.

This came just a few days after two 14-year-olds, a boy and a girl, were killed in the suburban county of Essonne to the other side of Paris. They were stabbed to death in two different brawls between young people from rival gangs.

“It’s not surprising that the most serious problems take place during the school holidays, because during this time they have to go without the forms of social support they usually rely on, such as sport clubs and youth centres,” Yazid Kherfi, a former robber who turned away from crime and has worked in youth crime prevention since 2012, told FRANCE 24.

‘Fear of reprisals’

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and the 6pm to 6am curfew that France has instituted to try to deal with it, “in these neighbourhoods there aren’t any places open at night,” Kherfi continued. “Right now I can’t go and meet young people at risk of turning to violence because of Covid-19 restrictions.”

In response to this spate of killings, the French interior, justice and education ministers convened on March 1 to officially put the government on alert against this phenomenon.

Gang warfare among young people is on the rise, interior ministry statistics show: France recorded some 357 incidents in 2020 compared to 288 the previous year. The interior ministry has identified 74 gangs throughout the country – including 46 in the Paris region.

These figures likely represent an underestimation of the scale of the problem, Thomas Sauvadet, a sociologist and author of a study on youth gang warfare, Le Capital Guerrier (“Our Warlike Capital”), told FRANCE 24: “The police only record the most serious incidents, while many victims shy away from filing complaints out of fear of reprisals.”

Sauvadet added that “about 10 percent of young men under 30 living in underprivileged areas in the Paris region belong to a gang”, according to statistics he collated. “These gangs are largely composed of young people who have known each other from an early age, sometimes from seven to 10 years old. Then they tend to have difficulties at school in adolescence, sometimes with family issues that they seek to flee – and often professional difficulties follow that. So these young people band together to form gangs and find themselves in a state of conflict with those around them, including social workers.”

“These young people come together in these gangs and they feel like it gives them a sense of identity as well as protecting them,” Kherfi added. “They often suffer from quite bad economic insecurity, because they tend to come from relatively poor families. But there is also a sense of physical insecurity, because social media make it much easier to relay threats.”

“People can hurl abuse at each other much more easily through the virtual network of social media,” Kherfi continued. “And the virtual violence of these insults can end up turning into actual physical violence when those involved meet face-to-face.”

Sauvadet agreed with this observation – adding that social networks have encouraged gang violence by making it easier to organise.

‘We need 10 times the current budget’

The French government is taking the role of social media seriously. It wants to use local networks of borough councils, the police and schools to monitor social networks to stop them being used as platforms engendering gang violence – one of several measures put forward by the interior and justice ministries.

But Sauvadet argued that this will not be enough, because social media accelerated a cultural phenomenon that had already taken root. “Powered by American popular culture, gang culture has become mainstream,” he said, adding that it has been trivialised by US rappers and influencers, and “has even been taken over by multinationals, such as a famous sports brand, which used a kind of gang aesthetic to sell a clothing line to young people”.

Several other factors have also contributed to the increase in gang violence, notably the emergence of mass youth unemployment starting in the 1980s. “There are plenty of people in their twenties who still live with their parents, and many of them have been stuck in gangs since they were teenagers amid economic precarity,” Sauvadet said. “They become the network heads who influence those beneath them in the hierarchy, serving as role models for teenagers who turn to violence.”

A lack of social workers dedicated to preventing gang violence is another big problem, Kherfi and Sauvadet agreed. 

“When you’ve got three working in a place where 5,000 people live, that’s seen as a luxury,” Sauvadet said. “We’d need 10 times the current budget for it to be effective.”

Even so, “social workers cannot by themselves solve all of society’s problems”, Sauvadet said. “We’ve also got to look ay the economic roots of drug consumption and trafficking, youth unemployment and housing problems.”

The government’s plan to fight gangs is scheduled to come into force on May 1. It includes measures focusing on beefing up policing as well as policies aimed at tackling the causes of gang violence – notably by increasing monitoring of truancy.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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