From the 1980s onwards, France has faced a series of violent riots in urban agglomerations, culminating in the autumn 2005 riots which continued for several weeks and spread to most of France’s major cities. As in the case of earlier riots in Great Britain, this drew broad attention across Europe and provoked the question of whether riots could also be expected in other countries. In both Germany and France, minorities now represent a large share of the urban population, in particular of the marginalized social underclass. Nonetheless, large-scale riots like in France or more recently in London and Stockholm have failed to materialise in Germany so far. Apart from varying levels of social disadvantage and disintegration, the quality of policing and of police-minority relations may explain this discrepancy. In comparing France and Germany, this project aimed at improving the knowledge of the causes of tensions and violence in urban settings and the sources of police legitimacy among adolescents in multi-ethnic societies, as well as the possible consequences for social order and policing strategies. The projects included both extensive qualitative participant observations and interviews with police officers as well as a large standardized survey of more approx. 20.000 adolescents in both countries. An overview of findings from the German youth survey (in German language) has been published in our series research in brief. Comparative findings have been presented on an international conference jointly organized by the Max Planck Institute and PACTE/Science Po Grenoble in Paris in April 2015. The contributions to this conference have been published in the collected volume "Police-Citizen Relations Across the World. Comparing Sources and Contexts of Trust and Legitimacy" (Routledge 2018).

As French ri­ots and many oth­er events have demon­strated, the flash­points of col­lect­ive un­rest have of­ten been as­so­ci­ated with po­lice ac­tions. The re­la­tion­ship between and mu­tu­al per­cep­tions of po­lice and (minor­ity) ad­oles­cents and the be­ha­viour of po­lice forces in dis­ad­vant­aged urb­an areas are there­fore es­sen­tial ele­ments in any ana­lys­is of the causes of col­lect­ive youth un­rest. Where­as re­search on po­lice/minor­ity re­la­tions is fairly de­veloped in both France and Ger­many, there has been al­most no com­par­at­ive French-Ger­man re­search. However, a com­par­at­ive, cross-na­tion­al ap­proach is cru­cially im­port­ant be­cause it in­creases the vari­ance of macro-level con­di­tions which may be among the de­term­in­ants of youth be­ha­viour (so­cial, eco­nom­ic, eth­nic con­di­tions), on the one hand, and po­lice be­ha­viour, on the oth­er hand (in­sti­tu­tion­al, or­gan­iz­a­tion­al, staff com­pos­i­tion con­di­tions). If some European coun­tries ex­per­i­ence youth ri­ots and oth­ers do not, des­pite the pres­ence of con­sid­er­able minor­ity pop­u­la­tions sub­ject to so­cial dis­ad­vant­age, the qual­ity of re­la­tions between po­lice and (minor­ity) ad­oles­cents could be one miss­ing link in the ex­plan­a­tion, the vary­ing de­grees of so­cial and spa­tial ex­clu­sion could be an­oth­er. One hy­po­thes­is to pur­sue is that so­cio-eco­nom­ic dis­ad­vant­age and spa­tial se­greg­a­tion are sig­ni­fic­ant forces – at least as im­port­ant as eth­ni­city – driv­ing both crime/vi­ol­ence as well as ten­sions between ad­oles­cents and the po­lice (and pos­sibly dis­crim­in­at­ory po­lice prac­tices).

There­fore, the fo­cus of the pro­ject has been two­fold: On the one hand, the study centred on the in­creased eth­nic di­versity in European cit­ies and its con­sequences. On the oth­er hand, the pro­ject aimed to gath­er em­pir­ic­al evid­ence on ad­oles­cents’ at­ti­tudes to and ex­per­i­ences of the po­lice, em­bed­ded in an ana­lys­is of their so­cial liv­ing con­di­tions, ex­pect­a­tions and be­ha­vi­our­al ori­ent­a­tions and on ac­tu­al po­lice-ad­oles­cent in­ter­ac­tions, po­lice be­ha­viour and po­lice at­ti­tudes to­wards (minor­ity) ad­oles­cents.

Meth­od­ic­ally, the re­search pro­ject res­ted on three pil­lars, in­cor­por­at­ing qual­it­at­ive and quant­it­at­ive re­search meth­ods. A quant­it­at­ive school sur­vey among ad­oles­cents nes­ted with­in neigh­bour­hoods was par­alleled by a qual­it­at­ive ana­lys­is of po­lice be­ha­viour and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al struc­ture by ways of in­ter­views and field ob­ser­va­tions. The prin­cip­al aim of the school sur­vey was to gain stand­ard­ized in­form­a­tion on po­lice-re­lated at­ti­tudes and ex­per­i­ences of ad­oles­cents for test­ing hy­po­theses on key the­or­et­ic­al con­cepts and for sys­tem­at­ic com­par­is­ons between eth­nic groups, neigh­bour­hood con­texts and coun­tries. The qual­it­at­ive part of the study al­lowed for pro­du­cing in-depth in­form­a­tion on at­ti­tudes and in­ter­ac­tions between ad­oles­cents and the po­lice.

The study was de­signed in a strictly par­al­lel and com­par­able way. One mid-sized city and one very large city have been se­lec­ted in each coun­try in or­der to in­crease vari­ance in po­lice activ­ity across the cit­ies and to re­duce the risk of na­tion­al gen­er­al­iz­a­tion from one point of ob­ser­va­tion. With­in the cit­ies, two dis­ad­vant­aged and one ad­vant­aged neigh­bour­hood have been se­lec­ted for the qual­it­at­ive field­work (and are also covered by the quant­it­at­ive sur­vey).

The study find­ings can be briefly sum­mar­ized as fol­lows: In­ter­ac­tions with po­lice of­ficers are a nor­mal part of daily-life ex­per­i­ences of ad­oles­cents in large cit­ies. Of more than 7000 re­spond­ents in Co­logne and Man­nheim, 43 % re­por­ted some types of con­tact with the po­lice dur­ing the last year, ca. 20 % re­por­ted be­ing stopped and checked by po­lice. Our qual­it­at­ive par­ti­cipant ob­ser­va­tions as well as the res­ults of the stand­ard­ized sur­vey both showed that eth­nic back­ground was not a se­lec­tion cri­ter­ia for the po­lice; in fact, ad­oles­cents from eth­nic minor­it­ies were slightly less likely to be stopped by the po­lice than nat­ive ad­oles­cents. The in­ter­ac­tions with po­lice of­ficers took place without con­flicts and were eval­u­ated as fair in most cases, both ac­cord­ing to our par­ti­cipant ob­ser­va­tions and to the ad­oles­cents’ self re­ports. Con­trary to hy­po­theses, levels of trust and le­git­im­acy of the po­lice were as high in so­cially dis­ad­vant­aged urb­an areas as else­where. We at­trib­ute these find­ings to a com­munity-ori­ented po­lice strategy pur­sued by ex­per­i­enced of­ficers who have suf­fi­cient loc­al know­ledge and com­mu­nic­at­ive skills. However, a minor­ity of around a fifth of the ad­oles­cents do not share this pos­it­ive per­cep­tions. If not from own ex­per­i­ences but rather in vi­cari­ous ex­per­i­ences and stor­ies, neg­at­ive views of the po­lice are shared by some, and more strongly among eth­nic minor­it­ies and in dis­ad­vant­aged neigh­bour­hoods.

A com­par­is­on with the sur­vey res­ults from France re­vealed that the French po­lice se­lect­ively stops and checks ad­oles­cents from Maghreb and sub-Saha­ran Africa back­grounds more of­ten, and that in­ter­ac­tions are more of­ten con­flict-prone or even phys­ic­ally vi­ol­ent. This has strong re­per­cus­sions on the mu­tu­al per­cep­tions between ad­oles­cents and the po­lice in France which lacks trust and is in­fes­ted with pre­ju­dices. One part of the prob­lem seems to be a more re­press­ive and hier­arch­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion­al struc­ture of the French po­lice.

The rich find­ings from our qual­it­at­ive and quant­it­at­ive data from two Ger­man and two French cit­ies can help to ad­vance know­ledge about po­lice-ad­oles­cents re­la­tions and the un­der­ly­ing causes of vi­ol­ent protests, and may help to de­vel­op bet­ter po­lice strategies in deal­ing with eth­nic di­versity.


The pro­ject was fun­ded by a joint re­search grant from Deutsche Forschungs­ge­meinsch­aft (DFG) and Agence Na­tionale de la Recher­che (ANR) (Pro­gramme en sci­ences hu­maines et so­ciales 2008).

The Franco-Ger­man Re­search Team:

The Franco-German Research Team

from left to right: D. Ober­wit­tler, M. Zagrodzki, D. Ger­st­ner, S. Roché, D. Hun­old, J. de Mail­lard, A. Schwar­zen­bach