ANALYSIS: Is youth crime in France really ‘out of control’?

After France was left shocked by the recent finding of the body of a 14-year-old girl in the river Seine, John Lichfield looks at whether youth violence in the country is out "out of control".

ANALYSIS: Is youth crime in France really 'out of control'?
General view of the Seine river under the bridge of the A15 highway, in Argenteuil, on the outskirts of Paris, on March 10, 2021, two days after a 14-year-old schoolgirl body was found. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

From the beginning, there was no mystery about how she died. A tearful local woman informed the police earlier that evening that her son, aged just 15, had punched and kicked Alisha and thrown her, still alive, into the river. The boy’s girlfriend, 15, also a school-friend of the dead girl, had helped to roll her, half-conscious, down a concrete slope into the freezing water.

The two youngsters were on Thursday mis en examen (a formal accusation) for assassinat – assassination or pre-meditated murder. Investigators have pieced together, easily enough, the story of a teenage love triangle, social-media bullying and revenge porn. Neither of the alleged attackers, according to police, has shown much remorse.

All the usual clichés about violence and “savage youth” in the multi-racial banlieues (suburbs) are pouring out on social media and in right-wing websites. But the boy, who has admitted to the murder, is a computer geek, not a gang member. All three teenagers went to a private, technical school with a very high teacher-pupil ratio.

Argenteuil is an unlovely but comparatively quiet and hard-working part of the Paris banlieues. A century and a half ago, it was a pretty village on one of the great bends in the Seine west of the capital. Between 1871 and 1878, its residents included the great impressionist painter, Claude Monet.

Some of Monet’s most celebrated canvasses were painted in Argenteuil, including the famous image of a woman and child gathering poppies in a sloping meadow with grass and flowers up to their waist. I visited Argenteuil a few years ago to write a “before and after” feature  on Monet’s landscapes. The poppy slope is now covered in concrete blocks of flat from the 1970s.

Claude Monet’s painting La Seine a Argenteuil. Photo by Ed Jones / AFP

Over that hill is another relatively peaceful Paris suburb, Conflans-Saint-Honorine. 

A 15-year-old girl admitted to police last week that she had lied about her presence at a civics lesson at a lycée in Conflans last October – lies which led to her teacher being beheaded. That story – an Islamist attack on a teacher wrongly accused of mocking Islam – was also partly a social media story.

What does the appalling murder of a 14-year-old girl by two of her schoolfriends tell us about France? 

It will become part of a litany of accusations by the right and far right that “violence is out of control” and that younger generations in the banlieues have become “ensauvagés” (turned into savages) by government softness, family neglect and – according to Marine Le Pen – “mass immigration”.

No matter if the facts don’t actually support the accusations. There certainly is endemic gang-warfare and a low value placed on life in some parts of the French banlieues and inner cities.

But suggestions that there is great wave of violent crime and murder, based on a number of high-profile incidents, do not stack up. The real peaks for murder in recent French history were the late 1940s and then the 1970s to mid-1990s. 

Until the 1990’s France had over 1,600 murders a year. In most recent years, there have been around 850, rising to 970 in 2019.  In recent years – since Le Pen began her mantra –  violent crime (leaving aside sexual assaults) has fallen from 647,000 incidents in 2012 to 579,000 in 2018. 

No matter also that the unusual – but very disturbing – facts of Alisha’s murder do not fit the preferred political narrative. None of the youngsters involved were gang members. The young man, who has not been named, is described by a neighbour as “never violent. In fact, the opposite.”

“This boy is kind of a geek. He spends most of his time in the apartment with his games console.”

His mother, evidently a woman with a moral conscience, alerted the police and spoke to media of her distress for the family of the dead girl as well as her distress for her son.

The sequence of events as outlined by Val d’Oise prosecutor Eric Corbeaux appears to be briefly as follows. The boy had a one week love affair with Alisha, the girl he murdered. He then became the boyfriend of the second girl, who was a friend of Alisha’s.

He objected to the two girls remaining friends. He hacked into Alisha’s phone and stole images of her in her underwear which he posted on the class Snapchat account. She protested to the school authorities. He was suspended.

A few days later, a fight broke out in a school corridor between the two girls. The second girl, who has not been named, was also suspended.

Girl number 2, recently turned 15, invited Alisha to meet her on the bank of the Seine to make it up. An ambush had already been planned with the boy by text over several days. When Alisha arrived, the boy stepped from behind a pillar and punched, tripped and kicked Alisha. He and his girlfriend rolled the semi-conscious girl into the river.

The boy went home and confessed to his mother, then fled to Paris with his girlfriend

Despite all the inevitable political claims and accusations, this seems to me not really to be a story about France, or the French banlieues.

Not much poppy-collecting by young people goes on in Argenteuil these days; but not much of it goes on anywhere else either.

This is a story about the social media age and internet age, when young people are invited to know a great deal but understand very little; to be grown up very young without, in some cases, growing up at all.

It’s about a casual acceptance of violence amongst some young people, which is present in France but not just in France. That, in itself, is worrying, whatever the crime figures might say.

Member comments

  1. I think your analysis, in your penultimate paragraph, is exactly right. Thank you for your thoughtful article.

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5 lesser-known museums in Paris to visit this summer

The city of Paris will be transformed to host the Olympic Games this summer, which means accessing certain landmarks and museums may be a bit more involved than it usually is. Here are some alternative, off-the-beaten-track museums worth visiting.

5 lesser-known museums in Paris to visit this summer

If you are visiting Paris during the Olympic Games, be prepared for large crowds and long lines outside of the most famous museums and landmarks.

On top of that, many Olympic events, including the opening ceremony, will take place in the centre of the city, meaning there will be security zones set up along the Seine river. 

It will be important to plan ahead to make sure that you do not need a QR code to enter certain areas.

You can use the website Anticiper les Jeux to see if the address you wish to visit will be in a security zone. Once you have checked that, you should go to their website to find out if you need to take any additional steps, like reserving in advance.

READ MORE: How to check for Paris Olympics disruption in your area

While it will still be possible to visit many of the city’s iconic museums, such as the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, most will require advanced reservations, with modified hours and access to the museum or monument altered due to security zones.

So you might want to consider the museums that are not close to the Olympics security zone.

Here are some options;

READ MORE: Hotels, tickets and scams: What to know about visiting Paris for the 2024 Olympics

Fondation Louis Vuitton – Opened in 2014, this French art museum and cultural centre is sponsored by the LVMH group and its subsidiaries. The building itself is something to behold – designed by architect Frank Gehry. This summer, it will host a special Matisse exhibit (Matisse, L’Atelier Rouge) in collaboration with several other international museums.

Normal tickets cost €16, though there are discounted options available.

The centre is located at 8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, which is located just to the west of Paris in the Bois de Boulogne.

Musée nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration – Recently reopened after a long closure and complete refurbishment, the permanent exhibit follows the history of immigration in France from 1685 to present day, via a fascinating combination of research and scientific data plus archive documents, newspapers, photographs personal testimonies and even a music booth.

The temporary exhibition tells the story of the modern Olympics, with a particular focus on women’s sport and the political dimensions of the Games. 

Full priced tickets cost €10. It is located at 293, avenue Daumesnil in Paris’ 12th arrondissement.

Musée Picasso – The museum boasts the largest collection of Picasso paintings in the world and has regular temporary exhibitions of other artists with connections to the Spanish painter.

Tickets cost €16. The museum is located at 5 rue de Thorigny, in the Marais in the 3rd arrondissement – although in central Paris, it will not be within any security zones. 

READ MORE: Five of the best off-the-beaten track museums in Paris

Musée de la Vie romantique – The former home of the Dutch-born painter Ary Scheffer, this is now a museum dedicated to romantic art in Montmartre. The first floor is dedicated to novelist George Sand. This summer, the temporary exhibit focuses on Théodore Géricault, to mark the bicentenary of his death.

The permanent collection is free, while the temporary exhibit tickets are €10. The museum is located at 16, rue Chaptal in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, near Montmartre – it also boasts a beautiful garden with a tea room, perfect for tea and cake after your visit.

Musée Marmottan Monet – One of Paris’ under appreciated fine arts museums, the Musée Marmottan houses a collection of art from France’s Napoleonic times, as well as several paintings by Impressionist painters, including one of the world’s largest collections of works by Claude Monet. On July 26th (the day of the opening ceremony) the museum will close early at 4pm but otherwise is open as normal.

Tickets cost €14. The museum is located in the west of Paris, at 2 Rue Louis Boilly in the 16th arrondissement, away from the Games activities and events.

What about the iconic museums and landmarks?

Eiffel tower – Be aware that the Tower is close to a Games venue. It will remain open during the Olympics period apart from the day of the Opening Ceremony (July 26th). However between July 18th and July 25th the Tower is in a security zone so you need to reserve in advance, though you will not need a QR code. More info here. From July 27th onwards the Tower will be open with normal visiting hours.

Louvre – During the Games, the Louvre will remain open to visitors, except for July 25th and 26th. However, all visitors from July 1st to September 8th must book a ticket ahead of time. A QR code is not required to visit the museum. You can find more info about Olympics related disruption/changes for the Louvre HERE.

Tuileries – the gardens will be closed on August 28th and throughout the Games it will be in a security zone, meaning vehicular traffic will be severely limited – although pedestrians can still access it without a QR code.

Musée d’Orsay – The museum will be closed on July 25th and 26th. From July 18th to 24th, it will remain open, but reservations will be compulsory. A QR code is not required. For the rest of the Games period, the museum will be open, but they will not offer late-night entry. More info here.

Versailles – The château, as well as the gardens will remain open to the public throughout the Games, with normal visiting hours. More info here.

Musée de l’Orangerie – The Musée de l’Orangerie will be open during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. However, it will be closed on July 20th, 25th, 26th, as well as August 26th and 28th. All visitors will need to make an online reservation in advance. Between July 18th and 24th, you will need a QR code to enter the security zone, and this may take up to eight days to process. More info here.

Grand Palais – Normally a museum, this landmark will instead host several Olympic events during the Games period and is therefore closed to normal visitors.