The suburb residents are mostly Arab or African, often Muslim and poor. One-third live below the poverty line. Some are immigrants, but increasingly they are second- and third-generation immigrants, descended from guest workers who arrived in the 1960s and '70s.
Thirty-nine percent of the residents are under age 25, and youth unemployment tops 40 percent (compared with 20 percent and 22 percent, respectively, nationwide).
In a literal way, the suburbs are zones of separation. Those outside Paris are set apart from the capital by the périphérique – a roaring eight-lane road that encircles the city. On one side is success, culture, and wealth – modern France. On the other is the banlieue – a place Parisians never go. The reverse is also true. In dozens of interviews, most banlieue residents said they had been to Paris only a few times.
Some 7.5 percent of French live in this "other France." Residents call themselves the nation's "illegitimate children" and often say they are second-class citizens. Government investment in the area is historically low, and a hefty portion of the $48 billion spent there in the last decade only arrived after riots in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois.
In 2005, police stopped 15 youths walking home from soccer practice for an ID check. Three ran off, heading to a nearby electrical power station. Two were accidentally electrocuted. The riots that ensued were initially limited to Clichy, but days later a police tear-gas canister was lobbed into a mosque during Ramadan, and the unrest mushroomed.