Seine-Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, is known as the Banlieue Rouge, the red suburb.
This traditional working class area has a history of militancy and is one of the few areas still dominated by the French Communist Party.
It has undergone profound changes since the 1970s. The working class area was settled by new groups of foreign workers from France’s former colonies.
These workers were drawn into the large factories that ring French cities, many of them joining trade unions and integrating into the working class.
They looked towards the Communist Party and the Socialist Party as their natural political homes.
The arrival of the new immigrants coincided with a severe economic crisis in 1974. The crisis left its mark on the immigrant workers and their families. Faced with racism and low paid jobs, they became trapped in sink estates.
There was a similar pattern in other cities across the country.
The ghettoisation of black and Arab migrants became unofficial government policy. The generation in revolt today are the children of these policies.
Many of the new migrants hoped they would eventually integrate, as did those before them.
But instead they found themselves marginalised, while their children found it almost impossible to break out of the deepening cycle of poverty.
These problems led to the first serious riots in the southern industrial city of Lyon in 1982.
These riots prompted the Socialist Party government to invest in run down neighbourhoods. But the programme fell far short of expectations.
In the 1990s the focus shifted towards internal investment with the establishment of tax free zones that would encourage companies to set up in the areas.
This new programme succeeded only in creating a few poorly paid jobs.
Today there are high levels of unemployment. Over half the population is under the age of 25, educated in sink schools with few prospects of decent jobs after graduation.
The state has responded to the deprivation and social problems by increasing police powers.
The Bac anti-criminal brigades, the “community police” and the feared CRS riot police have put many areas under siege. Ostensibly sent in to fight crime, the police have marked themselves out by their brutality and racism.
One French teacher described how the riot police shouted abuse at Muslim women as they fled a mosque that had been tear-gassed in the first days of the disturbances: “As [worshippers] left they were met with insults from the forces of law and order, who shouted ‘Whore, bitch’.”
Attempts to speak to the police proved futile. Those who dared to try were ordered to move on.
The government has responded to the riots with calls for more repression and more neo-liberal policies. Poverty and unemployment, they say, can only be tackled by the creation of “entry level” jobs.
This is a euphemism for two-tier employment, with some workers enjoying better wages and conditions, while the children of black and Arab immigrants remain ghettoised in low paid jobs with few prospects.