Andreas Whittam Smith: French-style segregation is coming to a town near you

If the Coalition's reforms to housing benefit take place as planned, we will be on the way to creating the same powder kegs as the French have done
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The Independent Online

Are we really so sure that when the British Government's spending cuts take effect we will avoid the same rowdy street protests as seen in France in recent weeks? Undoubtedly France and Britain are at the opposite ends of the scale so far as demonstrations are concerned. Our neighbours are the European champions and we are the laggards. Yet these things change. Once, Britain was out in front for football hooliganism and the French were nowhere.

Here, to start with, is a difference that may not endure. In France during recent weeks, the violence has been generated by the so-called casseurs, aggressive youths who travelled in from bleak housing estates where unemployment is high and attached themselves to the protest marches and meetings. They had no interest in the issues as such. But they had found a setting in which to demonstrate their general frustration by attacking the police. The protesters assembled by the trades unions, on the other hand, were peaceful.

Britain also possesses bleak housing estates where unemployment is high but until now they have appeared less ghetto-like than do the French banlieues. They have not been in the habit of supplying "extras" for street protests. Compare London and Paris in this regard. In the former, for instance, a short bus ride will carry you from areas of expensive living to cheap housing and from owner-occupied "villages" to districts full of subsidised accommodation. No such patchwork quilt of social classes exists in Paris. The poor have long since been expelled.

Yet in Britain, if the Coalition's reforms to housing benefit take place as planned, so that lower income groups can no longer afford to live in the centres of big cities, then we will be on the way to creating the very same powder kegs as the French have done, areas on the fringe, often cut off by ring roads and railway lines full of heavy traffic, where drugs, crime and delinquency are common and where the casseurs live.

Now here is a second difference that cannot be relied upon to continue. President Sarkozy has been in power for over three years and is blamed for much that the French dislike about their situation, as well as for his proposals to raise the pension age. Until now, the Coalition has not held office long enough to be criticised for anything. Indeed it has been singularly successful in persuading people, falsely, that all our problems were caused by the last Government. This immunity will disappear once the first redundancies in the public sector are announced and once the first services upon which people rely are suddenly withdrawn.

In this light, union leaders are probably wise to put off their first national demonstration until next year. The protests that took place last Saturday were low key and hardly likely to change the world. Tables were set up, volunteers handed out pamphlets, people chatted amiably with each other and in Norwich, for instance, a protest singer belted out as his refrain nothing more alarming than "be reasonable". Yes, the French would have smiled at that, "so English".

The meeting in Hyde Park, London, on 26 March being organised by the Trades Union Congress will be a much more serious endeavour. It could be constructed as a series of demands. Or, if the Norwich musician correctly caught the mood of the country, it could be designed more subtly as an appeal for the review of government policy. The message would be: we know we have to cut spending but "be reasonable".

In either case, the event will be designed to look good on television. The bar for success is high – I would say at least one million participants, the same number who joined the Anti-Iraq war march in London just before the invasion began. Failure would be a much smaller attendance and/or outbreaks of violence.

Here is a difference that won't disappear, however. In France there has been one obvious target, the Government's plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full pension retirement age from 65 to 67. This would affect 75 per cent of the population. And it is a single measure that can stand for all and every discontent. The legislation has been going through this week.

By comparison, the Coalition's spending cuts comprise a wide variety of decisions due to be brought into force at different times over the next four years that will have an uneven impact across the country. A dispersed series of targets is hard to attack effectively. Thus the success of the TUC's meeting in Hyde Park is by no means assured. What would be its focus?

Nonetheless, it is overwhelmingly likely that we will now have more street protests over the coming months and years than has been our habit. They will be small scale and widely spread throughout the country. Many of them will fail to attract much attention from the media. Only about one in 40 demonstrations actually gets national coverage.

If this happens, then we shall come to see that peaceful street protests are not per se bad, that they are not anti-democratic and that they are not an alternative to parliamentary democracy. Rather they complement the parliamentary process.

In all the advanced economies – other than Britain – the use of demonstrations has grown since the 1960s. As a means of registering a point of view, it has become conventional. People from all social classes are involved depending upon the issue. In this country, protest against, say, the closure of a local hospital wouldn't be a class thing. Nor would objections to the sale of Forestry Commission land to developers, to take another example.

Moreover local demonstrations are generally quite orderly. The organisers tell the police where they are planning to assemble and what route they hope to follow. These matters are generally agreed in advance. And the same statistics for Continental Europe that indicate an increasing use of street protests also show a steady diminution of violence.

Even more telling, surveys show that the more likely a person is to join a protest, the more likely he or she is to vote in local or national elections. The politically aware will take part in street protests and they will use their vote; the "don't knows" will do neither. Thus an unintended consequence of the coalition cuts could well be that taking part in demonstrations will become normal and not a strange French habit.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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