A tale of two cities: deciphering riots in Watts and, now, Paris

Robin Heim

Travel and study abroad seem more important now than ever. With trouble breaking out all over the world, the current generation of students needs to understand what makes anger explode into hatred and violence. But few would sign up for a tour of the Paris suburbs this week. That is, of course, unless they don’t mind the smell of smoke.

For the past two weeks French citizens have been torching their towns with hostile aggression. With 226 singed cities, 11,500 tired police officers, and 1,500 charred vehicles so far, French and other people around the globe wonder exactly what started this in the first place.

These riots, caused by ongoing frustration in impoverished immigrant areas where few can find jobs, recall all too well other famous “peasant revolts” from the past. Try to recall PowerPoints from that “Themes in Modern World History” class you slept through. Masses of people living in the neglectful shadows of their societies often grow tired of their conditions, and rebel using whatever means available.

Sound familiar?

It should, if for no other reasons than because of the multiple similarities to life in modern day Paris.

The region’s poor people, especially religious minorities, feel wrongly ignored by their government and have grown tired of knocking on locked doors. The current unrest echoes tense struggles from the past – economic, religious and governmental.

History overflows with tales of underdogs erupting in social coups, often with the same, “We’re not going to take this” mentality we see in French cities today. France is more than familiar with the social uprisings, and we Americans can boast of a few healthy riots of our own.

This summer marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous Watts riots, a six-day public revolt in August 1965 resulting in 34 deaths and over 600 ruined buildings in Los Angeles. In less than one week, the substandard streets and businesses of Watts, Calif., were so besieged that they required a National Guard barricade of the region.

Right now the French rioters consist of exasperated members of immigrant communities just outside Paris, mostly disaffected Muslim youths who feel they are not accepted or respected in France. With people suffering from high unemployment rates, scanty attention from government, and blatant racism, even ordinary occurrences can trigger uncontrolled emotions.

“Discrimination, not just racial, but ethnic as well, seems to be a theme that underlies many of the problems in the banlieue,” wrote Dr. Seth Whidden, assistant professor of French at Villanova. “It’s too simple to say that the problem is racist, but there are enormous inequalities in French society that also break down rather neatly along racial and ethnic lines.”

Maybe the times aren’t changing as much as they should. Paris suburbs and Watts bear stinging similarities in their uncontrollable insurgencies, suggesting that societies need to follow through on promises of social reform. Both in Los Angeles and in Paris, people rise up without leaders, specific goals, or game plans.

At first glance, the French rioters might appear to be the “scum” French Interior Minister ­­ Nicolas Sarkozy described them to be. But conscientious onlookers say such derision is a prime example of the administrative alienation and abuse that caused such incensed detachment in the first place.

“Separating the lower classes and underprivileged members of society from the rest of their fellow citizens, is incredibly alienating and it has happened all over big cities of the world, including in the United States,” Dr. Whidden wrote. “Think of South Central L.A. Providing inadequate social services to those areas and letting the high-rises become deathtraps is inexcusable and only aggravates the situation.”

The background story is a common one – people can neither advance in their social confines nor attract assistance from those above them. Combine that frustration with a group ready to stand on whatever stage produces publicity, and you have yourself the makings of an urban riot.

Some of today’s erupting French towns have unemployment rates of up to 25 percent, even higher in a few places. In predominantly Muslim neighborhoods, some organizations take advantage of youthful sentiments of alienation from state, and redirect what might be feelings of patriotism into religious fervor. When government officials either overlook or offend this spiritual rerouting, they can unwittingly encourage anti-administration insurgency.

Sure sounds a lot like Watts circa 1965, only with a different minority group. No one saw the unprovoked uprising coming then either, not Watts residents and certainly not state officials.

The turbulent week of the Watts’ riots sent administrative heads spinning in Los Angeles, producing new ideas about civic obligation. Aid packages and housing reform goals to repair the damage were proposed. However, 40 years later, little has changed in Watts.

France quickly jumped on the financial assistance bandwagon with talks of funneling funds into the local education and employment.

While strengthening those two focuses might improve living conditions outside Paris, experts say attitudes and social behavior toward the disaffected must turn also around to avoid future tensions.

“The big question, of course, is what next?” Dr. Whidden wrote. “The violence will die down if the French government meets the challenge as it has the potential to do: capably, with concrete solutions to improve living and working conditions, and also with compassion.”

At the 40th anniversary ceremony held in Los Angeles earlier this year, LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa voiced his regret that little has been done to improve the Watts of 1965. In too many ways, the city remains unchanged.

It may be too early for France to know what steps to take to solve the problems that caused these riots. However, few believe it makes sense to wait four decades to make amends.