UK riots: lessons from the banlieues?
First published on 11 August 2011 in Le Monde diplomatique - English Edition
In 2005, the French suburbs exploded in violence. Over a period of three weeks cars were burned, buildings were attacked and young people clashed with the police. Sparked by the death of two teenagers in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, the violence rapidly spread to suburban areas across the country. The riots culminated in a national state of emergency and the eventual cost of the destruction was estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.
While the riots that have taken place in the UK over the past few nights are not on the same scale as the 2005 violence in France, there are lessons to be learned from the French experience. Of course riots are, by their very nature, unique: every set of riots is the product of a particular combination of causal and contextual factors that may vary significantly from event to event. Yet riots often have common features that make their life cycle a familiar one. Things such as the events that trigger the violence, the reactions to the riots (politicians, police, citizens, community leaders, etc.), the media coverage of events, and the steps taken to re-establish law and order frequently take similar forms in different contexts. So what can the UK learn from the French experience?
Since the first riots broke out in London last Saturday, the dominant interpretation has labelled the rioters as nothing more than thugs and delinquents. Home Secretary Theresa May described the rioters as ‘mindless thugs’, while David Cameron said that ‘this is criminality, pure and simple’. This initial response to the violence response echoes the situation in France in 2005 when Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, dismissed the riots as the work of ‘voyous’ or thugs. In both cases, this interpretation carried significant weight in the public debate, coming as it did from the upper echelons of state authority.
Of course, reducing the riots to simple nihilism serves an important function for the authorities in that it quickly delegitimizes the violence and supports a response that is based solely on repression. But this interpretation is also dangerous in that it imposes a simplistic, binary view of the situation – bad guys versus good - that leaves no room for issues stemming from more deeply-rooted and less obvious social, economic or perhaps even political problems.
This is not an attempt to justify or condone the actions of the rioters – the destruction of homes and livelihoods was sickening to watch and there were clearly important elements of opportunism at play – but the reality is that riots are complex social phenomena that cannot be reduced to a single, all-encompassing cause.Following the French riots of 2005, a number of studies showed the security-oriented interpretation to be flawed. For while on the surface the French riots did not appear to articulate any clear demands, there was a message underlying the violence. Inhabitants of the banlieues are excluded in many ways from mainstream society, and the violence and destruction of the riots represented a revolt against this exclusion.
This is not to say that the UK riots hold that same message: the context is completely different and the riots here have taken a different form than those in France. Yet if the British government can learn anything from the French case, it is that conclusions drawn in the heat of the moment, from a situation that is still fluid and evolving, are not ones upon which to base any longer-term response.
Before we write these young people off as thugs and rush to close this chapter of the nation’s history, we need to have a look beneath the surface and see what is driving their actions. There are lessons to be learned from all aspects of the riots. In the French riots, attacks were mostly directed towards state-owned buildings such as schools and police stations, symbolic of an education system that is selective and a justice system that appears discriminatory. The London riots have seen the opposite: attacks on private property and businesses. This also tells us something. Is it possible that these young people are attacking a consumer-oriented society in which they feel they have no stake?
In the UK, the priority now is on re-establishing order. But once order has been restored, the events must be examined carefully and critically. The causal factors behind the riots must be identified and addressed; otherwise the flames of unrest will be covered over but not extinguished. In France, the 2005 riots prompted promises of change on the part of the government. During his 2007 presidential campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy promised a ‘Marshall Plan’ to reverse the social and economic problems in these troubled areas. In reality, little changed and France witnessed similar riots in 2007, albeit on a smaller scale. Moreover, the divide that separates the French suburbs from mainstream society is still there, as is the latent potential for more violence.
The security-oriented interpretation represents a knee-jerk reaction on the part of authorities faced with a crisis. It should not be allowed to define the riots before the events have been studied in detail. In 2006, David Cameron put emphasis on ‘Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn’t mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it’. Let’s see if his words will be matched with action.