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November 13, 2005 - Vive La Difference

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill. Note: Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

I hope not to step on the toes of Ric, whose columns (see November 13, 2005 - This Week) will surely be a better guide to events as they have happened at street-level, but all British eyes have, inevitably, been on our neighbours over the English Channel this last week.


The Francophobes amongst the tabloid press have, inevitably and rather sadly, taken to gloating about the recent rioting, as if to say: look how badly behaved the French are, such events could never happen here. They have a point, however crudely and jingoistically made. The footage of the French riots has been fascinating viewing for any British observer, primarily because we know such widespread social disorder could never really happen here at the present time.


Not that certain areas in Britain aren't just as racially divided. Only a few weeks ago, I wrote in this very column about the unrest in the Lozells area of Birmingham, between members of the area's Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. But that disturbance, however regrettable, lasted but one weekend. What struck me, watching the reports coming out of the Parisian suburbs these last seven days, is that there are other reasons why such concerted social unrest could never take place on this side of the Channel.


You'll have to forgive me the generalisations of the next paragraph, but hopefully some essential truths lie within their broad sweep. The French, by their very nature, are a demonstrative race, blocking ports, going on protest marches, and introducing powerful legislation - l'exception culturelle - whenever they feel impinged upon. It's an element of the French personality this correspondent has always admired: their collective ability to put a foot down and say "non", even when faced by, for example, certain American corporate organisations that have repeatedly crushed all resistance elsewhere.


And so, where the traditional British high street is being destroyed by an influx of logos and brand names (meaning that every British city starts to look the same as another after a while), and our multiplex cinemas fill up with British films so desperate to be like American movies that they lose all individuality, France has maintained a culture, almost unparalleled in Europe, of some rare diversity and integrity.


I would argue, however, that the poverty evident on British housing estates is far greater than that of those estates where the French riots originated last week. The underlying social problems on either side of the Channel are very different, though. In France, racism (particularly institutionalised racism) and a lack of social integration were the root causes of the recent unrest. In the UK, drug and alcohol abuse is rife. That difference is key. The first set of problems cause anger and frustration, and lead individuals to speak out or otherwise take action. Drug and alcohol abuse, by contrast, are known for their numbing effects.


What's been striking is how articulate the young Muslim protestors interviewed on the news have been in putting forth their point of view. There's a clear contrast between the genuinely angry youth currently running amok in the Paris suburbs, and those disenfranchised British kids whose binge drinking (as mentioned in last week's column) has left them entirely incoherent. In the UK, the rage gets focused inwards: the impoverished are more likely to pull a knife or gun on one of their own than go on the rampage through middle-class suburbs. In France, what's apparent is that all this frustration has been projected outwards; were it not for the incidental loss of life, you might almost call it healthy venting.


The odd thing is just how far outwards. There are two things I've found bizarre about the French riots, and I'm hoping someone can explain either or both of them to me. Firstly, that the rioting has spread to such relatively calm, sleepy bourgeois destinations as Rouen, favoured spot for many a English school trip over the years. The other odd fact is just how precise details of the rioting have been. The other morning, the BBC's electronic text service Ceefax was reporting that "408 cars have been torched overnight". Either the rioters have been keeping count, or the journalists covering the story have been unusually precise in their reporting. And what were 400-plus cars still doing out on the streets, given the combustible nature of the nights which preceded it?


On the home front, meanwhile, there was a moment of history this week. After eight years in office, Tony Blair's New Labour government failed for the first time to get a piece of legislation passed in the House of Commons. The new bill - intended to grant police the right to hold terrorism suspects without charge for up to 90 days - was rejected, after a major backbench rebellion. Many Labour MPs voted against the legislation, perhaps feeling the bill was an erosion of civil liberties too far. (A bill suggesting a 30-day maximum was put through in its place.)


After the compromise on plans to ban public smoking, and last week's resignation of David Blunkett - both imposed against Tony Blair's will - there have been doubts raised in certain quarters this week about the Prime Minister's leadership qualities. Worse still was what followed in the aftermath of this new bill being rejected: Home Secretary Charles Clarke appearing on television to publicly berate those members of his party who voted against the legislation. Or Blair himself, warning that the rejection might open new loopholes for terrorists to slip through, while preparing us all for his inevitable invocation of the "I told you so" rule should - God and Allah forbid - anything dreadful come to pass in the immediate future.


Mike McCahill

November 11, 2005




Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.





Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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