Those who have dismissed the recent wave of urban violence in France as yet another suburban riot are suffering from acute socio-political short-sightedness. Admittedly, the spark that ignited the violence is reminiscent of previous riots following police blunders that cost the lives of young people from the suburbs, as was the case in October 2005, after the deaths of Zyad and Bouna in Clichy-sous-Bois. Except that, unlike the 2005 riots, the recent urban violence cannot be blamed solely on the suburbs.
And that’s not just because there were “a lot of Kevin’s and Mathéo’s in these riots”, as the Minister of the Interior, Gerald Darmanin, rightly pointed out, although he cannot be accused of being lax towards those he describes as “troublemakers”. But also – and above all – because of an emerging phenomenon linked to a growing discontent among those left behind by Macronism. An accumulation of various forms of anger that has produced a “trickle-down” effect not of wealth but of violence, causing the riots to spill over from the traditional insurrectionary melting pot of the suburbs. This is the reason why recent urban violence has spread to city centers and medium-sized towns with a reputation for peace and quiet which, unlike the major metropolises, do not have the traditional “belts of poverty and social exclusion” that are suburban districts, but whose living conditions and purchasing power have deteriorated considerably for an increasing number of residents, particularly since the Covid crisis.
Without wishing to gloss over the suburbs or immigration issues (Read the Platform By Hamid Zanaz), there is a significant element of social rebellion in the recent riots that we should avoid criminalising (by reducing the solutions to be advocated solely to the security aspect or to the – admittedly necessary – restoration of republican order). And this at the risk of seeing the discontent swell still further and the outbursts of anger multiply.
Another phenomenon that distinguishes recent urban violence from traditional suburban riots is the worrying and predominant role of social networks. We are no longer talking here about the simple possibility of using these networks as a means of communication, under cover of anonymity – and therefore virtual impunity – to send out messages inciting people to riot or to call for rallies or actions that it would be risky to call for in the open. No, the networks have far exceeded their function as a tool for exchange that is (almost) beyond control and regulation. They are no longer content simply to convey or reflect (by amplifying) hatreds and resentments of all kinds. They have become platforms for generating online hatred. So, these networks, which were originally intended to connect people and bring them closer together, have turned into a formidable instrument of social discord.
What’s more, social networks are being singled out for their growing role in exacerbating various types of “emerging violence” (teenage brawls, survivalist excesses, urban violence, uber-terrorism, etc.), by fuelling an addictive and often macabre fascination with spectacular violence among the younger generation.
The recent riots are a perfect illustration of the damaging effects of this fascination with spectacular violence: Nahel’s murder, because it was filmed and broadcast on the networks, sparked riots across France. But another young man from the suburbs, Alhoussein Camara, who was killed in the same circumstances in Angoulême 13 days earlier, did not arouse as much emotion and anger, because the police blunder of which he was the victim occurred at 4am, without anyone being able to film it!
In addition to the threats posed by this social networking drift to social cohesion and civil peace, the diagnoses of the experts we interviewed as part of a special report on this phenomenon (see our magazine ‘‘Screen Watch’’, #35/36, July/August 2023) could not be more alarming: digital platforms are producing a “trolling of feelings” that generates hatred. And in so doing, they operate “a mild manipulation of people’s consciences”, producing a “digital mob” phenomenon that impacts the “cognitive perceptions of the young” and has the effect of “disinhibiting acts of transgression”.