But to speak of "civil war" in France, or of a "terrorist threat", packing together radical Islam and this urban violence as the same danger, as some foreign media have been too prompt to do, is to go overboard. It plays along with the fear-mongering rhetoric of the racist far-right, as well as radical Muslims looking to recruit youngsters in the jihad they dream of waging in Europe.
The inflammatory statements of Nicolas Sarkozy have fuelled the crisis. But contrary to his assertions, there has not so far been the slightest sign that these youngsters are motivated by any political or ideological agenda. Of course many are Muslims, of North African or African ancestry. Many have been infected with the worst anti-Jewish propaganda, and some, if only out of a desire to provoke, will claim admiration for Osama bin Laden.
But much more significant is that all are disaffected, and convinced they are getting a raw deal in present French society. They don't trust anybody's promises of an end to life in the ghettoes, and are convinced, not entirely wrongly, that they have been deliberately excluded from society. But that does not make them comrades of the London suicide bombers.
What they are doing night after night is more of a blind rage at perceived or very real injustices and inequalities, and a will to answer the harsh words of a minister who has made a point of denouncing "hoodlums" and "scum".
Those who really are at war with Western society, who are eager to follow the path of al-Qa'ida and are preparing acts of terrorism, are not so stupid as to go around burning garbage cans and confronting riot police. Radical Islamists and preachers of hatred may find new recruits among those who are rioting. But they are not leading them, yet.
Is there a risk that what is still mere street violence could become a more serious rebellion? Maybe. But those involved are still a very small minority of suburban youth, many extremely young, and most inhabitants of these ghettoes do not approve of their senseless destruction. The surest way to make the direst predictions come true would be to panic, by treating them as Islamist terrorists, thus stoking those ethnic and religious antagonisms on which "civil wars" start.
Patrick Sabatier is assistant editor of LibérationReuse content