July 7, 2023 - 7:30am

The recent rioting in France reveals a new and disturbing reality. Across the country, riots moved from the banlieues to town centres and fancy shopping areas, leaving behind a trail of destruction that included over 200 looted shops, 300 bank branches and 250 tobacconists.

Where past disorders, such as in 2005, were once largely confined to the suburbs, increasingly they have spilled into gentrified areas too. In addition, protestors are showing little respect for their supposed social betters: the pension protests, for example, made a show of targeting the offices of Wall Street firm BlackRock and torching President Emmanuel Macron’s favourite restaurant. Welcome to the class struggle, 21st-century style, where no area is fully safe.

Who are these rioters? A profile this week from Le Monde reveals that the looters tend to be active on social media and well-informed about the coming direction of the protest. Their motivations, as Macron has suggested, may not be purely political but also inspired by video games and social media. Yet there is no question that a lack of economic opportunity, crowded living conditions and frustration at repeated conflicts with police are all contributing factors.

This follows the American pattern. In the past, urban riots tended to be primarily restricted to poorer neighbourhoods. In the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which I covered first hand, little damage was inflicted upon elite areas like Beverly Hills or middle-class enclaves like the San Fernando Valley. Once I escaped the inner city, I could drink coffee from my house in the Hollywood Hills and watch South LA, Koreatown, and Pico-Union areas burn in the distance.

Today’s rioters embrace a different script, as evidenced in the 2020 George Floyd riots which also inspired French counterparts. Rather than burn down and loot their own neighbourhoods, the perpetrators moved into the elite, gentrified precincts of major cities such as Portland’s Pearl District once a model of urban improvement — and Seattle’s Capitol Hill. In New York rioters assaulted major Manhattan shopping areas, while in Los Angeles they invaded the posh Grove shopping centre as well as the primarily Jewish, heavily hipster-oriented Fairfax district. In Chicago, they ransacked the Magnificent Mile shopping district, historically a safe zone in an otherwise hazardous city.

These developments reflect in many ways the growing class divides within cities. For years, developers and investors have looked at tough inner-city areas as ideal gentrification spots. Many of these regions are close to downtown and have an old housing stock with traditional facades, large windows and high ceilings.

Yet these developments brought conflict with people already living in poor, usually non-white areas desired by the hipsters — whether in East Los Angeles, South Dallas or the South Side of Chicago. For years gentrification efforts have been decried, sometimes to the point of vandalism, as “high-tech ethnic cleansing” threatening to expel the poor from their long-time neighbourhoods.

This is not good for either the wealthy or impoverished residents of cities. Rising crime tends to push affluent people and companies out to the furthest out suburbs and exurbs, taking with them their enterprises and their tax revenues. It also tends to empower anti-immigrant political movements, such as America’s MAGA, France’s National Rally or Germany’s AfD.

The track record of what happens to lawless cities is not a promising one; after riots across the US in the sixties, and then in Los Angeles after 1992, bold promises were made by the government and by corporations, but the net result was to leave these areas even poorer and more marginalised. Riots leave an imprint, but rarely bring about progress. Rather than cry foul over racism, cities need to focus on the core issues, like lack of good jobs, poor housing, and terrible education, before even more “bored” kids hit the streets again.


Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter.

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