Thursday, 29 November 2007

Parisian protests finally cool down

Violence has died down after several days of violent protest in France. How did it all begin?

...two teenagers, riding a mini-motorbike without crash helmets, were killed in a collision with a police car on November 25th. How it happened is unclear; a judicial inquiry has begun. But by nightfall, rioters were on the rampage. Over two nights of violence, they torched scores of cars and rubbish bins, a police station, a nursery school, a library, shops, a car dealer and a McDonald's. Other banlieues north of Paris and in Toulouse saw car-burnings. Some 130 policemen were wounded, several seriously.

These latest French riots, reminiscent of the ones two years ago, bring up an important sociological question: Why do riots like this happen more in France than other places? France certainly is not the only developed nation with discontented poor and minority groups. France is a nation of protests and strikes. Recent example: the transport strike.

Why don't these stands against authority (more the recent riots than the strike) happen to this extent in America or Britain, cultural differences aside? A partial answer — and only a partial answer — is that while the US and UK embrace a multicultural society, the French prefer a more homogenized culture. That does not answer the full question, but rather the underlying issues that provoked the flair-up between people and police. I guess more subtle differences explain why the French protest so much.

The lack of organized protest to the Iraq war (as compared to, say, the anti-Vietnam war protests in America) is interesting. Civil protests are a good thing for democracies. They can relieve pent-up tensions, they let opinions be aired, showcase public opinion, and generally help get out the word of the people. But too much protesting can get out of hand, as can violent demonstrations like the ones so often seen in poor French suburbs.

President Sarkozy took a different, if less tactful, route to describing the clashes than most. He
risked inflaming tensions in Parisian suburbs by declaring violence this week was the result of a "thugocracy" of criminals, not social deprivation.

Two years ago, then-Interior Minister Sarkozy was borderline-racist in his handling of the riots and subsequent comments. I don't know if he is handling these too much better as president, but at least the security response was adequate.

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