BBC News

Do the English riots parallel France?

By Henri Astier
BBC News

image captionThe French riots of 2005 lasted for three weeks and affected some 250 towns

The death of a young man in an encounter with police sparks a riot in a poor suburb of the capital. Disaffected youths in neighbouring areas in turn go on a rampage. Soon the arson and looting go viral, engulfing towns and cities across the country.

This week's riots in England present clear similarities with those that shook French suburbs in October and November 2005. But how far can parallels be drawn, and can the two countries learn from each other in dealing with civil disturbances?

French sociologist Michel Fize was struck when he heard British commentators remark on the extreme youth of the rioters. "The very first thing people noted during the riots in the Paris suburbs was precisely the presence of young children," Mr Fize says.

"That said a lot about the unravelling of family ties - families are no longer able to do their jobs as educators," he told the BBC. "As a result the children spend their time on the street and can do what they like."

Beyond a common breakdown in parental oversight, Mr Fize says, both sets of disturbances are rooted in the same social problem: lack of opportunity and hope among the young.

'More mixed city'

image captionIncidences of civil unrest are less frequent in Britain than in France

France's "banlieues" - as they are called - are ethnic ghettos with unemployment rates of up to 50%. The London suburb of Tottenham, where the latest rioting began, also has a large concentration of ethnic minorities, as well as a high rate of unemployment.

In addition, Mr Fize contends, suburban youths feel "an equal degree of hostility towards security forces on both sides of the Channel".

But some commentators are wary of stretching the parallels too far.

French criminologist Alain Bauer points out that outbursts of civil unrest are much more frequent in France than in Britain.

"There have been regular bouts of unrest in the banlieues since 1979, while the British had not seen anything on this level for 30 years," he says.

Paris suburbs like Clichy-sous-Bois, Aulnay-sous-bois, or Evry exude a degree of hopelessness and desolation that is absent in Tottenham, Wood Green or Brixton - all of which have vibrant high streets in normal times.

This points to an important difference in the nature of the suburbs in the two capitals. Paris is characterised by a clear divide between a large, wealthy city centre and often grim satellite towns.

In London, by contrast, beyond a tiny central core lies a collection of proud boroughs, each with its high street, residential areas, parks, and housing estates.

"London has developed as a much more mixed city than many in France in the sense that the rich and poor are often much closer together," says Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.

'Shielded from scrutiny'

Expensive houses are often a short walking distance from large social housing blocks, he notes. Thus Ealing, a leafy, middle-class area of west London, was not spared by looters. Traditionally working-class Tottenham and Brixton have many affluent residents.

Some argue this explains why the rioting there quickly turned to high-street looting. This was not the case during in France in 2005: few shop were ransacked in the urban wasteland where the riots were confined. "Youths didn't break shop windows because there were none to smash," says Mr Fize.

Renaud Epstein, a lecturer at Nantes University, also believes that it is too early to establish clear comparisons between beyond the general characteristics of all riots - an incident involving police within a context of social deprivation.

The French riots of 2005 lasted for three weeks and affected more than 250 towns. More than 10,000 cars were set ablaze. The current ones in England are hardly on the same scale so far.

But as Mr Epstein sees it, the most profound difference between the two countries lies in the response by the authorities.

image captionThe riots led to a state of emergency being declared by French President Jacques Chirac

After each incident since the 1981 Brixton riots, a public inquiry has been set up, and drawn conclusions that have not spared the authorities or police. In more than 30 years of sporadic rioting in French housing estates, no such independent investigation has been conducted.

No policeman has faced justice in relation to the incident that sparked the 2005 riots. "In France, unlike Britain, the state is shielded from scrutiny," Mr Epstein told the BBC.

A related difference, he adds, is that French police, unlike their British counterparts, tend to specialise in tackling riots. The country has a long tradition of crowd control, as well as specific units focusing on quelling unrest.

Lessons to draw

In every French city, beat cops dealing with every-day crime are less conspicuous than heavily armed riot police. "The main job of the police in France is not to defend individuals but to defend the state," Mr Epstein says.

Despite the differences, looking for parallels may not be a futile exercise. Mr Fize says the main lesson the French can draw from the English riots is that unrest can erupt at any time.

And since little has changed in the "banlieues" over the past six years, he believes another round of disturbances is inevitable. "The ashes of 2005 are still hot," Mr Fize says. "Rioting is bound to re-occur - we just don't know when."

Conversely, Mr Travers believes the British may belatedly learn from the French experience.

"The British thought until this week thought that suburban rioting was a phenomenon of France, Paris and Marseille, but not of Britain, London and Birmingham," he says.

"But as is true of many things, France and Britain have a great deal more in common with each than either of them would generally like to admit."