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Germany and France: Youth riot and attack police

July 22, 2020

First it was Stuttgart, then Frankfurt that saw groups of young men attacking the police. What is behind the violence? And are commentators right to draw comparisons with scenes in French cities?

People sweeping away broken glass
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

Germany's cities have seen outbursts of pent-up rage and violence in recent weeks. First Stuttgart, then Frankfurt. On both occasions, police were targeted by an outpouring of aggression from hundreds of mainly young men. Shopfronts were destroyed, stores were plundered. Dumpsters were hurled across the streets. Video recordings from Frankfurt show bystanders cheering on as men make a sport of throwing bottles at police officers.

Read more: Stuttgart recons with youth rage after riots rock the city

The violence has sparked fierce debate in Germany. Many are asking to what extent restrictive measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic might have stoked the aggression.

And another question; Why are a majority of the rioters apparently members of immigrant communities? Could Germany face the kind of violence and unrest that has for so long torn through France's notorious banlieues?

people looting shop
In Stuttgart windows were smashed, shops were lootedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Julian Rettig

How incendiary is corona?

Coronavirus is like a fire accelerant, political scientist Stefan Luft told DW. But he rejects the notion that the pandemic is the main cause of the violence.

Read more: Coronavirus anger foments violence against journalists

Criminologist Dirk Baier agrees. He is head of the Institute of Delinquency and Crime Prevention at the Zurich-based University of Applied Sciences. "COVID-19 has led to a high level of frustration. But there's more to it than that," Baier told DW.

It is the same 'ingredients' each weekend. Alcohol flows and the later it gets, the greater the tension. Conflicts break out. The police intervene. The situation escalates and begins to get out of hand.

"All you need is for sufficient young men to have crossed the threshold, to have overcome their inhibitions — people who probably already have a history of violence." And if you have enough people with that kind of background coming together,  according to Baier's analysis: "Things explode."

Police and tipped-over rubbish bins (picture alliance/dpa/Hit Radio FFH)
On the main square in Frankfurt young men were hurling bottles at policeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Hit Radio FFH

This seems to be precisely what happened in Frankfurt. The police say that the vast majority of the 39 arrested were already known to the police in connection with offenses like theft or drug trafficking.

Read more: Teens in Germany sharing more brutal content online

The issue of identity

Both in Stuttgart and in Frankfurt a large number of the rioters were members of immigrant communities.

Germans call this having a 'Migrationshintergrund' — a 'migration background.' And this term, too, is incendiary, with angry disputes over who can use it and why. Are we, for instance, talking about first, second or third-generation Germans? Migrant workers? Illegal migrants? Refugees or asylum-seekers? Or what? 

Read more: German police defend immigrant background probe into riot suspects

What, if any, is the direct link between migration and violence? It is a question that is asked often and loudly by the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Its leaders were quick to share videos of the rioting on twitter, implying that such scenes may soon be seen across the entire country.

Both the AfD and Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party draw a direct line between what they see as a breakdown in law and order and what they deem to be failed integration strategies.

Political scientist Stefan Luft also believes that problems with integration are one explanation for the outburst of violence among young men in Stuttgart and Frankfurt: "They have a divided identity. On the one hand, they distance themselves from what might be their country of origin and their parents' culture. But the problem is that at the same time they haven't properly arrived in their new surroundings, their new culture." As a result, they tend to move in a sub-culture where violence might escalate."

Read more: Racial profiling debate in Germany

"It is not the 'migration background' that triggers the violence," Dirk Beier argues. He says it is rather the biographical context that he sees as a burden. "Migrant communities are confronted with higher levels of unemployment and a sense that they have no future," he observes.

The criminologist points out that men with a 'migration background' do tend to share 'violence-oriented male norms.' Baier goes on to describe them as "young men who don't have much that they can rely upon beyond their physicality. They're probably not very well integrated as far schooling, training, getting a profession are concerned. And they are very likely to have a track record of violence, which is something that they probably experienced growing up in their own families."

French riot police attesting Black Live Matter protestor
The killing of George Floyd by police resonated with people in France and led to violent protestsImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. C. Poujoulat

Just like France?

The scenes in Stuttgart and Frankfurt have led to talk of parallels with rioting in the suburbs of some of France's larger cities, the banlieues, where migrants make up a large proportion of the community. Social conditions are, to put it mildly, harsh. Every couple of years tensions erupt into violence that all too often leaves a trail of devastation through the banlieues. The images that are then transported are similar to those in Frankfurt. And there is another parallel: hatred of the police.

Read more: French police officers charged with manslaughter

One of the biggest outpourings of violence in France in recent times came in 2005 and followed the deaths of two teenagers in a car chase with the police. In the same way, eruptions in Stuttgart and Frankfurt also came after police operations.

Firefighter putting out fire in car
In 2005 young migrants in Paris' banlieues went on a rampage torching cars several nights in a rowImage: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

"It's also got something to do with the language that people have in recent weeks been using to talk about the police," says Baier. The German police, he goes on, have been accused again and again of racism, without it really being clear that the charge is justified: "What is clear is that for people from the migrant community, it's a persuasive narrative for encounters with the police: Here we go again, it's me they're after because I'm a migrant. It's the same thing all over the world and I'm not going to bow to it."

And the situation in Stuttgart did indeed escalate after a drug control. "It's always said that the police have a racist approach to drug controls. And that's precisely what happened: first drug control, then escalation," Baier points out.

Read more: Macron leaves France's suburbs in the lurch

But although there might be some similarities: how convincing are parallels with France really? After all: "We don't have the same degree of social polarization in our cities," says social scientist Luft. There is little indication, he adds, of an explosion of violence in one district of a city that has been left far behind. But, we must be vigilant and make sure that social housing is divided fairly across our cities in order to avoid whole areas being blighted.

Dirk Baier also says he does not expect social conflagrations to be making regular headlines in the foreseeable future. "Germany is a stable society. The police will respond."

Stefan Luft is no doubt that the police must do what it takes to protect the public space. But, he insists: they must get full political backing to do so.