Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Attacking French Hopelessness

As French cities have burned, other countries have been very severe in judging France. Embassies have issued warnings to tourists and their citizens living in France; television news programs have shown hours of footage of burning cars. Other countries’ governments, it seems, have been trying to distance themselves from the problem, fearing a contagion that they know is likely to spread.

Mayors across Europe, however, have responded more moderately, feeling and showing solidarity with the plight of their French colleagues. They know that their cities are also vulnerable to urban violence, in so far as they have pockets of social inequality, including marginalized and excluded young people.

The specificity of the French situation is that the revolt is targeted against the state, and more precisely against the police forces. Unlike recent riots in the United Kingdom, which were inter-ethnic, the confrontations in France put their participants face to face with the police. Indeed, there is no specific religious or ethnic character to these riots, in so far as youth from various ethnic backgrounds have taken part.

Minority youth are, to be sure, over-represented among those involved. This is easily explained by their geographic segregation, higher levels of unemployment, higher school dropout rates, and disproportionately frequent interactions with the criminal justice system.

But, in view of the diversity of the young people convicted so far, it would be a mistake to say that these riots are the result of Muslim radicalization. There is absolutely no indication so far that organized networks or religious groups are manipulating these youth. Of course, this is not to say that Muslim radicals will not exploit the disarray if a satisfying resolution is not found rapidly.

The rioting may not be organized - no clear leaders or political demands have emerged. Yet these violent acts can be viewed as a political conflict in the sense that young people are directly challenging the state by attacking its representatives. The violence seems to be proportional to these disenfranchised young people’s sense of perceived injustice and the lack of opportunities for them to express themselves.

In this sense, France is paying the price for the lack of continuity, coherence, and appropriate funding given to social development policies over the past 30 years. Although these policies have undoubtedly helped residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods, they have not been sufficiently ambitious to dampen resentment.

One example of overly timid policies involves policing. In the last few years, France has distinguished itself from other European nations by gradually abandoning community-based policing, which the government considers too “social” and prevention-oriented. While European police forces place prevention at the top of their agendas, France has chosen to treat it as a marginal goal. As a result, tensions between the police, who are increasingly perceived as “outsiders,” and residents have grown to all-time highs.

In the absence of a community-based approach, interactions with law-enforcement authorities are now limited to tense, conflict-ridden situations, reinforcing the confrontational atmosphere between rebellious youth and the police. At the same time, the fact that police agents must intervene in places with which they are not familiar severely impedes their effectiveness.

In the current violence, the police have unfortunately been placed in the position of sole representative of the state. But all public actors, not just the police, must respond to urban problems.

First and foremost, mayors should be mobilized as mediators, because they are on the front line in implementing urban policy. When these policies fail, citizens hold mayors responsible. But mayors are also the most knowledgeable about communication links within their communities, and are thus the most capable of organizing effective partnerships to address and resolve local issues.

The events in France also point to the need, at the European level, to reinforce policies against discrimination and that promote social equality. Although these policies must be implemented at a local level, they should be catalyzed and supported by European institutions. Efforts in this area already exist, but it has become increasingly urgent that these efforts be strengthened.

Equality and social cohesion form the backbone of liberty, justice, and security for European cities. This is why Europe’s mayors call upon European institutions to focus on social cohesion with the same commitment that has been invested until now in asylum and border controls.

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