Disorder in world cities: comparing Britain and France

French and British cities are alone in Europe in experiencing recurrent urban outbreaks of disorder and mayhem. What can we tell from comparing the English riots to what happened in French cities and towns in 2005?
Sophie Body-Gendrot
15 August 2011
Rioting in London. Matthew Aslett/Demotix. All rights reserved

Outbreak in London. Matthew Aslett/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

Irresponsible acquiescence to budget deficits and mounting debt by numerous countries has translated into austere fiscal policies and drastic cuts in social services. These choices have generated public protests in Latin America, Israel, Spain and Greece. I recently analyzed thirty years of disorder in French and British cities, the only European countries experiencing recurrent urban outbreaks. (This term is preferable to ‘riot’ which expresses a political judgement rather than an analytical distinction and implies political awareness on the part of street actors). Historically, the political experience of Britain and France has been central to the development of enlightenment, democratic ideas, and rules of law, but also to social insurgency, confrontations and protest, in which poor people are driven to violence to express their emotions and their claims. When confronted by social violence, what Adrian Favell calls 'path dependency', repli sur soi, blocks Britain and France's internal adaptation and responsiveness to problems. But the comparison especially with French events in 2005, when a wave of violence spread through Paris, Toulouse and further afield, helps us to say that what happened last week in British cities comes as no surprise.

What do we know?

Demonstrations in France against pension reform. Christophe Voisin/Demotix. All rights reserved

Demonstration in France against pension reform. Christopher Voisin/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Although we have learned to develop a 'cautious ignorance' regarding why outbreaks happen here and now and not next door, some assumptions seem to hold. The Kerner Commission in 1968 discarded ‘riff-raff’ explanations emphasizing the role of agitators and socially deviant, irresponsible individuals and showed instead that rioters were quite similar to the residents in the neighbourhoods where agitation took place. It pointed out that urban disorder occurred in places with a 'reservoir of grievances' regarding police harassment, poor housing and lack of jobs. Other commentators insist on the lack of official channels for grievances aggravated by (racial) segregation, on generalized hostile beliefs shared by such communities and on the importance of rumour. For his part, British scholar David Waddington remarks that societies do not divide clearly into law abiders and deviants, that subcultures influence police and acting groups and that police intervention does not necessarily escalate disorder. Among numerous explanations put forward, without doubt, the flashpoint one is consensual. Underlying social conditions in the highly charged situations of 'sensitive' neighbourhoods provide the powder keg required for a conflagration. Then a single incident – e.g. the perception of an abuse of justice - acts as a catalyst due to the interpretation made of it on the spot.

Depending on interaction, the situation, logics of context, politics, and so forth, all kinds of factors then overlap. Crowd formation expands as soon as an incident takes place in an area marked by tensions and hostility, then the rapid circulation of rumours, the contagion of behaviours, the fluctuation of collective emotions and finally the media coverage of events structure the dynamics of unrest. These are important intensifiers. What needs to be noted is a scattering of different local outbreaks which are at the same time blurred into one by the media deploying the same words, urban violence, disorders, riots, outbreaks, unrest, etc. The media are the translators but also the amplifiers of events, weaving a single narrative out of isolated incidents for the general public. But each outbreak merits its own analysis.

In London’s Tottenham in 2011, the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police and the failure to explain why, with his family learning about it from the media, generated anger and a peaceful protest that became the spark for the riots that followed. Space is a construct, resulting from practices, identities, and connections. Diverging interpretations, involving contenders from different cultures (for instance immigrant store-owners) ignite confrontations. Acting out, street action is a youth repertoire meant to release emotions, making the disempowered visible when they have no other access. Violence is power in powerless lives. Multiple and diverse motivations push heterogeneous individuals and groups onto the streets, from the opportunity to experience a 'happening', to the thrill of playing hide and seek with law enforcers, or the drive to commit arson and violence and to loot. As usual, another trigger was also operating: older individuals, some of them gang leaders, making use of the chaos, and instrumentalising violence for their personal benefit. 

What is new ?

Palestinian residents of Silwan rioted after being denied entrance to pray at the Al Aqska mosque.

Palestinian residents of Silwan rioted after being denied entrance to pray at the Al Aqska mosque. NSI Agency/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The socially and ethnically mixed composition of those on the streets during those four nights have been made evident in adult and youth court hearings in various cities. Lateral ethnic and racial conflicts or race riots do not specifically characterize the 2011 events. What participants shared was an unfocussed hostility, a detachment from their communities that allowed actions without remorse (especially boosted by alcohol). Growing inequalities, the brutality of global mutations inducing a malaise of civilization à la Freud, the lack of acceptance of policies of austerity, the elimination or deterioration of public services and a sense of injustice and distrust in poorer communities: all these elements show the correlation of macro-financial developments and the dialectics of order and disorder. They also seem to confirm the relative deprivation thesis.

But this does not provide a sufficient explanation for the events which took place last week in Britain. Mechanistic explanations will not do. Levels of poverty, unemployment and other distress factors indicate that cities that did not erupt are just as distressed as those that did. Moreover, budget cuts had hardly been implemented when this disorder occurred. These and other obvious considerations suggest that a complex skein of factors interplay, including but not limited to deprivation. 

How do these events compare with the 2005 disorders in France?

Convergences abound, regarding scale, speed and vicious behaviour in both countries. In France, even in 2005, no locality experienced more than four nights of unrest which seems to be a limit condition for those outbreaks. The French contagion was fuelled by the media organizing a kind of Hit Parade of burnt cars that egged on usually invisible youths to overcompensate for their marginalisation by engaging in ever-riskier provocations. The profiles of the participants - young, mostly male, idle, resentful - look similar, trapped in a general context of disenchantment with politics, disenfranchisement and anger. They are institutionally disempowered and politically ignored. Few identify with them. What is striking is that these youths ask for nothing. 

Consequently, the politicians' first reaction is to externalize and blame the delinquents ('them') and to rally law abiders ('us') with speeches indicating that they are in firm control and the promise of zero tolerance policies. With regard to the police, both in France and the UK, the response was slow to arrive and at first, strategic errors were made. Once in control with backup and the support of the courts, the police image improved. In both contexts, the role of the police has been essential: its organization and leadership (bruised in the case of the Met by the phone-hacking scandal), the role of public opinion, police culture and the interaction with acting groups. But whereas in French problem areas, a permanent state of conflict opposes rank-and-file police to the minority youths whom they contain using a paramilitaristic approach, policing by 'consent' in Britain appears to have left forces less prepared for handling public disorder.

The configuration of cities must also be taken into account. Seen from London, affluent Paris looks like a medieval fortress, well protected by two ring roads. Outbreaks thus take place at the margins of cities where handicaps are piling up.  The boundaries of London neighbourhoods and of other British cities are less sharply delineated. As in Los Angeles in 1992, fluidity and mobility allow youth bikers, their BBM in hand, to move on rapidly from one area to another, rich or poor, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, or with motives (possibly for some of the deaths that occurred this week) that may only be revealed much later once they have been brought to court. 

However, there is an important difference, it seems, when it comes to public reaction. Extensive British television coverage was devoted to victims and to their emotions. Moral condemnation seemed unanimous, calls for denunciation by authorities and methods helping citizens to do so were enforced, while self-help and innovative collective actions were praised. This binary trend supports the values of conservative politicians and their sense of order. It would be unthinkable in France to publicly incite citizens to denounce troublemakers and to have their pictures published. The very word 'denunciation' translates as 'délation', invoking dark episodes during World War II. French journalists and commentators (with a class lens) prefer to blame the state repeatedly for not implementing policies remedying structural deficiencies and inequalities. Blaming the police for causing social tensions due to their lack of accountability, their methods of harassment, and their disrespect is routine. In this Roman Catholic country of France, youths whose lives are chaotic, parents overwhelmed, education dysfunctional, are rarely pointed at as 'shaming' the nation. That they belong to a community disintegrating from the inside and the outside, fractured by cultural identity, class membership and by policy choices is readily admitted. But in France, this 'compassion' does not generate more public solidarity. Rather, it somewhat legitimates the welfare state's redistribution as a way of purchasing social peace. 

Why don’t such disturbances occur more often?

General strike in Greece. Epoca Libera/Demotix. All rights reserved.

General strike in Greece. Epoca Libera/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

The answer can best be obtained initially, by acknowledging that civil strife is relatively rare, and next, by suggesting that when collective violence does occur, it is catalyzed through a labyrinth of relatively discreet, highly dispositional events which, at a defining moment, fold into one another. It is this combination of chance, context, and causation which explains why disorders occur. 

More recently, as observed by Saskia Sassen, the transformation of cities has submitted to the phenomena of globalization, to new centralities and marginalities revealing economic mismatch, spatial entrapment, the disruption of traditional arrangements, values and collective efficacy. All this contains fresh potentiality for conflicts and disorders. 

The state remains of central importance in designing the social contract and the future requested by majorities of the populations and in elaborating the policies meant to match that goal. But this expectation is not met and the state remains merely reactive. Currently, civil unrest is a symptom of the way state authorities have been taken hostage by entrenched interest groups fighting for the defence of their privileges, and thereby mentally cut off from populations who are difficult to reach, unable to form coalitions and to articulate their demands. 

Violence signals a danger, a dysfunctioning of our societies that only translates into a shortsighted unwillingness to enforce significant reforms. As a response, yet more policies of the ‘third type’, in which the state has few resources and no will for redistribution, strong in rhetoric ('doing something' to assuage public discontent), but cheap and incremental (patchwork repair and interim solutions) in practise, are to be expected.

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