Social media and violent popular culture have made a bad situation worse
On the second night of the French riots last week, a terrified councilman in Dreux, a small town 50 miles west of Paris, found himself alone and surrounded by some 200 very young rioters in the deserted local police headquarters. The man, who doesn’t want his name published out of fear of reprisals, locked himself up as best he could, and from behind a shutter watched the rioters set fire to cars and dustbins they’d pushed against the station, hoping for the flames to spread to the building. He was rescued a couple of hours later, shaking.
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In accounts of the riots it is the age of the rioters, as well as the extreme violence, that crops up again and again. The mayor of Paris suburb Corbeil-Essonnes, Bruno Piriou, told Le Parisien newspaper that he watched “about 300 very young people, some as young as 12, completely organised, preparing their attack”. According to the mayor, “they were all dressed alike, in overalls and face-covering glasses. A group had a circular saw to cut down the CCTV camera poles. On the walls, they wrote ‘We are the law’, ‘Kill the pigs’, ‘A good cop is a dead cop’.
Dr Mathias Wargon, who heads the A&E department at Delafontaine Hospital in the tense northern Paris neighbourhood of Saint-Denis, says that he and his staff were threatened and insulted by roughly twenty young rioters coming to bring their wounded on Thursday night. “Talking heads and pundits in Paris talk of political reasons, but to me there’s just violence and opportunistic looting,” he said. “We underestimate the stupidity of some of these people”.
The political analyst and editor Fabrice Pozzoli-Montenay has collected stories from state and municipal agents across the country. Most are still in shock, and claim that in several cities many records such as housing requests have been torched. “This had little to do with Nahel’s death,” said a policeman. “We saw some of them use drones to watch police movements; there were malicious calls to clog up emergency services hotlines, for instance for the attack on a police station in the Eure [in Normandy]. Often some groups would block off a street to distract the police while their accomplices robbed shops.”
Emmanuel Macron has suggested that social media and video games are partly responsible for this rise of violence, and was predictably ridiculed by many of those who use these sites. The French President also recently claimed that he would “cut off” social media in a dangerous situation. This is a statement that, if read charitably, shows a complete lack of understanding of how decentralised networks work. Further, it denotes that, pushed into a corner, our post-politics President dreams of going a little Xi Jinping on us.
Most of us have forgotten how Tipper Gore, former US vice president Al Gore’s wife, once made it her cause to limit violence in music and film, resulting in her being endlessly roasted for her lack of sophistication. How, the wags asked, could she think viewers would be so easily influenced? But why, then, the constant effort for minority representation and political correctness in television and films in the last half-century?
If popular culture can promote good, it can surely glamourise brutality, nihilism, callousness, ignorance and urban warfare as well. For the lost children who clearly make up so much of this angry movement, who have fled cramped flats to find solace on street corners, whose worldview has been shaped by the violent scenes they consume online and on television because they will listen to no one and nothing else, this is a self-evident reality.