A youth from a segregated area dies as the result of a police chase, leading to widespread, violent riots: Paris in 2005, London in 2011 – two similar scenarios, both highlighting a social rather than ethnic malaise.
Making comparisons between the French riots of 2005 and the current British flare-up is tempting: in both countries the political climate was and is marked by dwindling investments in health and education, encouraging an elite system that makes climbing the social ladder increasingly difficult. But there are wide-reaching differences between the two cities, starting with their structural organisation.
London’s sprawling web of self-contained boroughs radically differs from Paris’s centralised structure, physically separated from its banlieues by a two-lane ringroad that draws a physical line between Parisians and their poorer, suburban neighbours. “When discussing Paris’s outskirts, London is often used as a model,” says urban planner Hala Akl, (ironically enough, so was Tottenham during the riots in 2005), before admitting that, “in Paris, there is a sense of geographical segregation on top of a social one.”
The division of Paris extends to the public transport system, a fact which had a direct impact on riot management six years ago: as buses began burning in the banlieues, public transport was immediately shut down, which made it all but impossible for rioters to access the city. The troubles simply did not have the opportunity to threaten the heart of Paris.
The climate of the riots was also radically different. In France, the outbursts of urban violence occurred pre-recession. In the case of the UK, the troubles coincide with an economic crisis. Rioters have seen the government bail out banks at the cost of taxpayers, while cutting education and social services.
In the UK, looting has been a central part of the riots – reflecting both a strong desire for and anger towards consumer society – something which France saw very little of. “The 2005 riots weren’t about consumerism but expressed an old hatred of the police, characteristic of the banlieue – an anger that actually unites people,” says Philippe Chassainge, professor in contemporary history and contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique.
Where armed, specially-trained riot police (CRS) were quickly mobilised in the banlieues, policing in the UK was marked by late intervention and poor organisation, leading in turn to local defence groups and people taking the law – and brooms – in to their own hands.
In the end, the geographical situation probably remains the most defining difference between the two cities: in France, ostensibly, the problem never hit society at large. Most Parisians avoided – and still avoid – the banlieues at all cost. It’s a far cry from the UK, where the riots quickly moved to the heart of the city and then across the entire country.