The riots: a view from across the Channel

French thinkers offer their analyses.

When the Parisian banlieues went up in flames in 2005, there was a good deal of smugly self-congratulatory commentary on this side of the Channel. In comparison with the French capital, so the argument went, London was a multicultural utopia in which people of many races lived more or less happily side by side. In Paris, by contrast, the disenfranchised, disaffected children of North and West African immigrants were coralled beyond the city limits in barren, bleak housing projects. Rarely did they come into contact with the population of Paris intra muros.

That's now been shown up for the Panglossian nonsense it always was. As James Meek argued the day after the worst of the rioting in London, the "reality of multicultural London" was a kind of uneasy truce between groups "that are rigidly self-separated by race, language, religion, class, money, education and age". And that was a truce that was broken catastrophically on the night of 8/9 August.

Now it's the turn of the French to look at us. In a special feature, Le Monde asks academics and researchers to try to "explain" the "English riots". Has the moral fabric of English society crumbled? Were the riots a sign that multiculturalism has failed (that was certainly the view of the Front National presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen)? Or were the depredations of "ultra-liberalism" to blame?

For sociologist Fabien Truong, "pre-packaged" political explanations, from both left and right, are worthless. Truong goes on to point out the differences between the riots here, which he says are "individualist and consumerist", and the violence in France in 2005. Romain Garbaye offers a similar analysis:

There's nothing new about looting on the other side of the Channel. It happened in Brixton and elsewhere in 1981. But this time, it seemed to take precedence over the desire to confront the police. . . . After the police racism of the 1980s, then the ethnic segragation and failure of social cohesion that led to the riots of 2001, Britain should now be asking itself what it can do about a frustrated consumerism based on social inequality.

Mikaël Garnier-Lavalley argues that conditions in the major French and English cities are more similar than we might think (or than most French people would like to think). On both sides of the Channel, he says, "generational and geographical inequality grows as the welfare state recedes and ultraliberalism advances". And that's an analysis echoed by the specialist in English history Olivier Esteves. In both countries, deepening inequality threatens to make urban violence of the kind seen earlier this month in London and in Paris in 2005 "both ineluctable and cyclical".

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood