Paris – Seen from France there’s a feeling of deja-vu about the riots that have convulsed London and other British cities this week.
Six years ago the suburbs of Paris presented a similar picture of marauding group of youths, faces obscured by hoodies, torching cars and engaged in pitched battles with police.
As in London, the riots in Paris in October and November of 2005 were triggered by a police operation in a low-income neighbourhood of mostly ethnic minorities, in which young people were killed.
In Paris’s Clichy-sous-Bois district, a suburb of mainly African and Arab communities, two black teenagers were electrocuted after climbing into an electrical sub-station in what residents said was an attempt to hide from police carrying out identity checks.
The news of their deaths ripped through the area, triggering riots in suburbs around the capital and spreading to other cities over two weeks, during which one man was killed, scores injured and around 3,000 people arrested.
As with Britain, the riots highlighted issues of social exclusion in communities with large non-white communities and saw the government’s record on integrating minorities called into question.
‘The riots in the French suburbs in October 2005 was correctly interpreted as the failure of the republic model of integration dating back to the (French) revolution,’ L’Alsace paper commented.
‘English-style multiculturalism obviously doesn’t work any better,’ the paper added with no little schadenfreude.
Many newspaper in France also saw in both the French and British riots an indictment of cuts to basic services by their conservative governments.
But the images of both capitals ‘burning’ also obscure key differences between the French and British examples.
There’s the looting for one. In France there was no stampede for flat-screen TVs and expensive sneakers.
The French riots, which were characterized by unprecedented levels of arson – 1,173 cars burnt in one night alone – appeared directly aimed at the authorities, particularly at tough-talking interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who had come into the position a few months earlier declaring he would brook no trouble from ‘riff-raff.’
His remarks inflamed already dire relations between youths in the ‘banlieues’ – wastelands of high-rise apartment blocks thrown up to house migrant workers beginning in the 1960s – and the police, who became the main target of the rioters.
By contrast with Britain, the French riots were also almost exclusively confined to the suburbs, which meant that middle France – and tourist spots – were largely unaffected.
In an era when social networking was only starting to take off, and rioters were less mobile, the nearest most French people got to the action was watching the evening news.
In the wake of the riots, the French government set aside tens of millions of euros a year towards organizations that work with disadvantaged communities.
But security remains a concern following the closure of many local police stations, while remarks seen as stigmatizing Muslim immigrants by members of Sarkozy’s government continue to fuel tensions.