Bernard Boisseau of the biggest secondary teachers' union, SNES, said that while nothing could justify the violence, these estates were characterised by "abandonment, and explosive unemployment of 30 to 50 per cent; but also discrimination against local people, especially those of immigrant origin".
Nathalie Chevolot teaches history and geography at a lower secondary school in Creteil, outside Paris, where rioting was fierce. The area was not badly damaged - "a few cars were burned" - but there was a "heightened sense of tension at school. The kids didn't stay away, but they didn't work."
She said the main problem for teachers was a lack of respect, "verbal rather than physical violence". If heads take decisive action against unruly pupils, "others learn by example," she said.
A teacher for eight years, she joined the school only last year. Most of her pupils are second or third-generation immigrants from north or sub-Saharan Africa. "Many of the kids have only one parent, or experience problems linked to family conflicts," said Ms Chevolot.
"Some do very well but they need support from their families; parents who check homework and keep an eye on their marks. I think school has a big role to play but where I work if you don't have parents in control, we can't do anything," she said.
Mr Boisseau believes the government has exacerbated problems for schools and young people in these areas.
In the past three years 15,000 teachers' and 30,000 auxiliary workers' jobs have been lost; resources have been axed; and doubts raised about vocational education which, he said, was the path to success for some pupils.
He said residents needed to be involved in solutions for their neighbourhoods. His union is calling on education minister Gilles de Robien to organise meetings bringing together staff, young people, parents and community activists in difficult areas.