France exploded in riots in late 2005.
France exploded in riots in late 2005. Creative Common

The civil disturbances that have convulsed cities across England bear some resemblances to the month-long reign of disorder that wracked France almost six years ago.

While the full scale of the British disorder may exceed the magnitude of the French riots, they share some important similarities.

In both cases, a large group of disaffected, poor youths (including many immigrants) took out their frustrations against what they viewed as a daunting establishment structure designed to keep them in poverty.

Issues of racism, police brutality and the failure of integrating immigrants into the broader mainstream society played key roles in both conflagrations.

The civil unrest in France was sparked on Oct. 27, 2005 by the deaths of two immigrant boys –one Arab, one black African -- in the poor banlieue (suburb) of Clichy-sous-Bois, east of Paris. The two boys were electrocuted while climbing onto an electrical sub-station – allegedly while they sought to hide from police who were chasing them.

Eventually, the rioting spread to other communities in the Île-de-France région, and eventually spilled elsewhere, even into rural areas.

By November 3, the crisis had affected all fifteen of the biggest “aires urbaines”(metropolitan areas) of France, including Toulouse, Lille, Strasbourg, Marseille, and Lyon.

One French rioter told the press at the time: "People are joining together to say we've had enough. We live in ghettos. Everyone lives in fear."

Similarly, the violence in England was triggered by the police shooting of a young black man in Tottenham, a poor neighborhood in north London. Soon, the chaos spread to other similarly deprived parts of London.

Eventually (perhaps facilitated by the social media networks), the rioting and looting surfaced in other large cities, including Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham and others.

In 2005 France, thousands of cars were burnt, businesses destroyed, at least one person died in the ensuing disorder and up to 3,000 people were arrested.

While the final tally of Britain’s tragedy has yet to be ascertained, it is likely to far exceed the damages incurred across the Channel.

In France, the unrest lasted almost a month, prompting parliament to establish a state of emergency (which itself lasted until January 2006).

Interestingly, the rioters in France included both poor immigrant youths and native white French – a direct parallel to the British riots.

Nicholas Sarkozy, the French interior minister during the 2005 riots, took a hard ‘law and order’ line against the youths who committed violence.

While touring a poor Parisian suburb, Sarkozy and his party were attacked by stones and bottles. He angrily denounced the rioters as “rabble” and ”gangrene” and vowed to rid the streets of hoodlums “with a power hose.”

It should be noted that Sarkozy eventually became the president of France in 2007.

Perhaps as a warning to British authorities it should also be recalled that two years after the 2005 disturbances, violence again flared outside Paris – this time, following the deaths of two teenagers who crashed into a police patrol car. Again, youths demonstrated on the streets, threw Molotov cocktails and set police barricades on fire. The ensuing hostility led to dozens of police sustaining wounds.

In assessing the impact of the 2005 riots, then French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, told reporters: "Our collective responsibility is to make difficult areas the same sort of territory as others in the republic. The [nation] is at a moment of truth. What is being questioned is the effectiveness of our integration model."

The president of France at the time Jacques Chirac vowed to eradicate racism and enact more job programs for Arab and African immigrants – but he also pledged to crack down on illegal immigration.

In connection with immigration, the far-right in France exploited the riots for their own propaganda. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the notorious head of the anti-immigrant Front National said the riots were the direct result of allowing too many foreigners into the country in too short a time.

"We let in 10 million foreigners over 30 years - it's wild insanity. No country can handle that [kind of ] invasion," he bellowed to a group of supporters.

Similarly, the far-right British National Party (BNP) is seeking to stoke tensions further by linking the current criminal activity on English streets directly to mass immigration.

A column in American Spectator commented: “The British National Party is the most probable beneficiary from the rioting. Already the BNP is putting out leaflets demanding the presence of the Army on the streets. Many people, traumatized by the last few days, are likely to agree.”

However, the BNP seems to be unable to take advantage of any civil unrest to further its agenda, Not even the 2005 bombings in London by Islamic militants was able to translate into more votes for BNP political candidates.

France is a somewhat different story. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, who has taken over her father’s organization, is seeking to run for President of France next year – in polls, she is doing exceedingly well. She has a good chance of entering the crucial second round of the May 2012 presidential election – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years before.