If France is such an open society, why are you, who live just across the Channel (a mere hop, skip and Chunnel ride away from Paris), having such a difficult time getting the definitive answer you so desperately seek?
Well, if an editor commissioned me, I'd go. (Academic blogger Patrick Belton, from Oxblog, did in fact make the trip in the midst of last year's violence, and to the best of my memory came back even more convinced that social exclusion was the dominant factor.) The point, though, is that it's up to the commentators making claims about "Islamic militias" and the rest to supply the evidence. In the meantime I prefer to rely on the assessments of experienced reporters such as the Telegraph's David Rennie:
Of course race plays a part, but it is more to do with anger at authority, joblessness, crime etc... My growing hunch is that the biggest problem in France's banlieues is jobs, and a protected social system that is great for about 70 per cent of the population who are in jobs for life, and offers no entry point to the bottom 30 per cent.
Another e-mailer weighs in, this time on the lack of first-hand coverage.
The truth may well be that most journalists, I imagine, particularly foreign ones, don't go into the banlieues very much. On the blogs not many are written from the banlieues. I was in Paris throughout most of last year's riots. I stayed in Porte de Clignancourt which is on the North of the Paris Ring Road, beyond which lie the banlieues and there, and certainly in central Paris, you wouldn't know that there were major riots going on nearby.
Philosopher André Glucksmann, not renowned as a hand-wringer on Islamic issues, sees the violence as a particularly French form of nihilism:
I don't think that it's the end of integration. On the contrary. These are French youth. Good, they have parents that come from sub-Saharan or North Africa, but they are French youth. They integrate themselves by setting fire to cars, to people even. They integrate themselves through protest. That's very contemporary in France. Didn't you see the hijacking of the Corsican ferry? The Corsicans launch attacks, sometimes it's the Bretons or the Basques. There is a typical French integration through negation. Everyone in France, all parties, businesses, workers, believe it's possible to accomplish things through violence.
So how will the unrest affect the political landscape? Times correspondent Charles Bremner fears that Le Pen and the far Right will be the beneficiaries
A poll by the CSA institute has shown that 17 percent support the chief of the Front National. This is eight points higher than the same period ahead of the 2002 election in which Le Pen, the sulphurous face of French politics, shocked Europe by coming second to Chirac.... Only a third of these represented extreme right supporters. The rest were hardline conservatives and disillusioned voters from all sides who would vote Le Pen in protest against the mainstream.
Not good at all. But not - yet - the "civil war" some pundits seem to be hoping for.