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20 August 2011

The riots: a view from across the Channel

French thinkers offer their analyses.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

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:

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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.

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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”.