06 November 2005

Is Paris burning?

It’s funny (read “thought provoking”) how age changes one’s perceptions.

In 1968, I was just sixteen years old. The riots in Paris and elsewhere in France seemed an exciting harbinger of future change to a better world. I wanted to be there. I absorbed the names and the images, looking ahead to days when injustice resisted would have fallen away and been forgotten.

In 2005, I am more than 53 years old. The riots in Paris and elsewhere in France seem reminiscent of riots I have seen to many times in too many places before, usually a symptom if injustice suppressed and ignored for too long until the lid blew off. In the deepest and truest recesses of me, am glad I am not there. I absorb the names and images, looking backward in vain for reasons to hope.

There are, of course, many types of (and reasons for) riots; but, most of the time, two types predominate and both arise from oppression or/or injustice. One type (call it “Type I”) begins with an explosive release of frustration among the victims; “Type II” starts as an explosive release of alarm amongst the dominant social layer who fear losing their upper hand. Either way, they are signals of social failure.

On this occasion, the signal is of social failure to achieve parity of opportunity and justice between racial and socioeconomic sections within the French population of France. This is not, in general terms, an unfamiliar situation. Britain had similar riots for much the same reason in the early 1980s, and on a smaller scale before and since (2001, for instance, in Bradford). It’s tragicomic to hear some of the Francophobic comment coming from the US – home of the 1992 Los Angeles riots which claimed 50 or more dead (the current total in France is 4) and, again, others before and since (Seattle’s Mardi Gras riots of 2001, for example). Australia saw the Redfern riots of last year. Even sober, stable Sweden provided 2001 with a riot in Gothenburg.

Although I didn’t set out to make the point, I notice than several of the examples above have one thing in common. Paris in 2005, LA in 1992, Bristol in 1980, Sydney in 2004 – all of these were triggered by police action against a member of a disadvantaged social fraction which was at least perceived as unjust. I’m not for a moment suggesting that police officers are always responsible for riots; but police forces are instruments for enforcement of a status quo which, almost by definition, reflect those components of their society which are dominant.

Memories are very short. We who look at France’s riots and feel a breath of schadenfreude pass though us should stop and take a very careful look about us, closer to home.

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