Rioting in the UK and France: driving factors
First published in Le Monde diplomatique - English Edition
The riots that broke out in the UK last August took the authorities completely by surprise. Nobody imagined the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in north London would be the catalyst for large-scale violence and destruction in cities across England. More than 4,000 arrests were made and insurance companies costed the damage at over £100m. The Association of Police Chief Officers claimed the disorder was ‘unprecedented in its scale of violence and the way in which events escalated rapidly.’
The immediate response of those in power, including the prime minister, was to dismiss the rioters as delinquents. At the time, I wrote that this interpretation was simplistic and reductive, a knee-jerk response that failed to consider the complexities of the situation. This was supported by a recent study by the Guardian and the London School of Economics: the ‘Reading the Riots’ project found that the riots had multiple causes, including a profound sense of injustice by those involved and strong opposition to the police.
These findings echo some of factors behind the 2005 riots in the French banlieues. Though each set of events was unique, the riot as a process exhibit features that often remain constant in different contexts (the events that trigger the violence, response to the violence, media coverage, etc.). So comparisons between different episodes of rioting are valuable.
France in 2005
In autumn 2005, riots erupted in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Sparked by the death of two teenagers while fleeing the police, the violence rapidly spread to banlieues across the country. Cars were burned, buildings were attacked and young people clashed with police in a situation that culminated in a national state of emergency. The riots whipped up a media frenzy: headlines such as ‘France is burning’ and ‘Explosion in the Suburbs’ were splashed across international front pages, and for three weeks the sensational images of violence and destruction captivated audiences across the globe.
Violence in the banlieues is not a recent phenomenon. There have been regular outbreaks since the riots in Lyon at the beginning of the 1980s; the pattern is so well established that violence in the banlieues rarely makes the front pages of the national papers. But in 2005, French society received a wake-up call. The rapid spread of the riots to all corners of the country in an almost spontaneous expression of anger was a new stage in the evolution of the banlieues. The violence was proof of a downward spiral in the suburbs, proof of the gap that separates these areas from mainstream society.
During and after the riots, commentators aired a range of interpretations of their causes (some were echoed in the UK almost six years later): simple acts of destruction by delinquents; a fragmentation of society along ethno-religious lines; the manifestation of a purely social crisis. However these interpretations, formed for the most part without the benefit of critical distance, were easy answers that appeared to ignore the complexities of cultural, economic and even political issues that comprise life in these areas.
In any case, these causal equations did not quite add up. Claims that the riots were the work of gangs of thugs and delinquents were undermined by the revelation that, contrary to Nicolas Sarkozy’s claim that 80% of the youths brought before the prosecution were hardened delinquents, well-known to police, the immediate appearances of the ‘rioters’ before the court at Bobigny showed that the majority had no criminal history. Moreover, an investigation by the Renseignements Généraux (the intelligence branch of the French police) – leaked to the French press – explicitly stated that the violence was not organized by gangs.
The second interpretation pointed the blame at Muslims, but this too proved to be unfounded. The Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from taking part in the violence, while journalists reporting from the banlieues witnessed Muslims attempting to defuse the violence, in some cases even forming human chains between the rioters and police.
At the other end of the spectrum, the commentary focused solely on social issues, citing the destructuring of the working classes. This perspective is also problematic because it is too limited. Alongside the more abstract, structural factors that frame the social climate in the banlieues, one must consider the day-to-day events and exchanges that occur within this framework.
So what was the significance of the riots? The immediate cause of the violence was clear: the death of two young people while fleeing police in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois was the spark that set the suburbs alight. But that does not explain the geographical spread of the riots. Why did the 2005 riots go beyond the limits of Clichy-sous-Bois? What drove young people with no connection to the dead youths to engage in this large-scale violence and destruction?
To answer this question, I went to the Parisian banlieues and, over a period of nine months, interviewed members of the community, elected officials, social workers and police. Part of a three-year research project, my time in the banlieues gave me an insight into life there and a deeper understanding of the driving factors behind the riots. I found that while they had no appointed leaders and voiced no clear demands, this was by no means a nihilistic expression of violence and destruction. The riots held a message.
Life at the Limits
The banlieues exist on the fringes of French society. Characterised by high levels of unemployment, academic failure, and tense relations with the police, these areas concentrate many of the challenges to the republican model and its lofty ideals. Discrimination and marginalisation form part of the daily life of inhabitants, many of whom are of immigrant origins.
Framing this hostile socio-economic climate is the more abstract but equally important question of identity. Many inhabitants of the banlieues suffer discrimination based on their immigrant origins. Dogged by stereotypes stretching back to the 1980s, they are regarded as outsiders, the ‘other’. But while the stereotyping of immigrants has remained more or less unchanged, the identity of the inhabitants themselves has undergone profound changes.
The immigrant population of the suburbs has reached its third, and in some cases fourth, generation. Issues of national identity and cultural belonging have evolved with the birth of new generations, and questions of identity are no longer the same ones faced by the immigrant population of a decade ago. The majority of youths in the suburbs areFrench nationals, born and raised in France, with little connection to the past of their ancestors. They are French, especially in their own eyes, even if they are labelled otherwise by some.
The republican idea of integration has not kept pace with the natural processes of acculturation that have occurred in the suburbs. And as a result, the calls for young ‘immigrants’ to integrate that are frequently directed at the suburbs evoke a profound frustration for the young people living there.
Strange as it seems, the destruction and violence that accompanied the riots can be understood as a plea for access. Socially and economically disadvantaged, the difficulties experienced by inhabitants of the banlieues are compounded by a profound sense of injustice at the exclusion to which they are subject. The police are, for banlieusards, perhaps the most visible manifestation of this injustice. Repeated identity checks, insults, provocation and constant suspicion have become part of the daily routine for the many young people and the relationship between police and inhabitants is one built on mutual distrust, suspicion, and, above all, conflict.
In this sense the riots can be seen as political events charged with symbolic meaning. The riots represented an effort to confront the exclusion and marginalisation that dominate life in the banlieues. And while these events did not follow prescribed forms of political action, they were, nonetheless, rooted in the fundamental social and political mechanisms that underlie the emergence of collective social movements.
Violence became a form of speech which was more effective than words in the banlieues, where conventional forms of political action have lost legitimacy due to their perceived inability to effect positive change. Violence was viewed as a necessary course of action, a means of articulating their inhabitants’ sense of injustice. More, it acted as a vehicle through which their anger could be heard in the public and political spheres.
Ultimately the rioters were seeking recognition in a social order that excludes them. They attempted to forge a new path that lies both outside and inside conventional political channels: outside in the sense that the riots take an unconventional form that seems alien to conventional forms of political engagement; inside in the sense that those involved seek to force their way into the political sphere using alternative means. Paradoxically, the rioters attempt to move away from conventional means of political engagement in an attempt to gain access to a political arena which is structured, to a large extent, by these same channels.
United Kingdom in 2011
Although clearly a very different context, some of the principal driving factors underlying the French riots were at play in the UK as well: the pervading sense of injustice, the problematic relationship with the police and, perhaps most important, the sense of alienation experienced by many of those involved. The Guardian/LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ project shows that the causes of the riots are complex and varied, and certainly not reducible to pure criminality.
It seems that the message of UK rioters was not so very different to that of their French counterparts. Social exclusion and economic deprivation, combined with a strong sense of injustice, make a potent cocktail. Shake it enough and it is bound to spill over. Just as in France, the violence was seen as a way to give voice to the malaise that lurks beneath the surface of British society.
This is not to say that the UK riots were a carbon copy of those that occurred in France. The UK context differed in many respects, from the historical context framing the violence to the blatant opportunism that was captured by news cameras. However, the similarities, where they occur, provide an insight into rioting as a social construct and should not be ignored.
Six years after the French riots, the memory of those violent events has largely faded. Other issues - mainly economic - have taken centre-stage and the banlieues have slipped quietly out of the limelight, forgotten again by those in power. True to the pattern that has taken root over the last three decades, as soon as the flames die down the media circus disbands and moves to the next likely location.
However, the cultural, economic and political problems underlying the riots remain, as does the anger and frustration of inhabitants. Token promises of change - such as President Sarkozy’s “Marshall Plan” – have done little to reduce the gap that separates the banlieues from mainstream society. Unemployment still rests far above the national average, academic failure is still rife and police-public relations are still characterised by conflict. In this context, the anger and frustration that fuelled the 2005 riots has been nourished rather than quelled. Young people in the suburbs are living in the shadows of the Republic; in the banlieues the lofty ideals of the republican model are disjointed from the reality of daily life. 2007 saw another episode of rioting in the Parisian suburb of Villiers-le-Bel. These events did not compare to those 2005 in terms of geographical spread. They did however, make their own mark: 2007 was the first time that firearms were widely used against police.
Ultimately, the malaise of the French suburbs is growing and the current trajectory cannot be maintained; unless the social and cultural trends that govern life in the suburbs are altered for the better, the pattern will be reproduced and French society may well see a repeat, perhaps intensiﬁed, of the violence and destruction witnessed in 2005.The UK must learn from the French example. The LSE/Guardian study has shown, at the very least, that there was more to the August riots than many believed. This should serve as a starting point for the government. The flames have been extinguished, the destruction largely repaired, but the causes behind the riots have not resolved. Indeed, they have barely been addressed.