Igor Toronyi-Lalic

The fine art of French rioting

Photo-illustration: Coral Hoeren (iStock)


One of the benefits of holidaying during a riot is you feel remarkably safe. Ruffians have no interest in you while they can be having fun at the expense of a much more exciting foe, the police. And besides, there are Lacoste stores to be raided: they have no time for your wallet.

The other major benefit is you can get a table anywhere. We had the best seat in France last week: the first-floor balcony of La Caravelle, an old-school bar overlooking Marseille’s historic port and the perfect vantage point for taking in the fine art of French rioting.

The choreography unfolded in fits and starts. The police vans snaked around the water’s edge in military formation. Out filed the riot cops, their tessellated body armour making them look like mutant woodlice. We spotted a group of skinny masked boys. A wash of smoke. A flash of red. A scurrying of woodlice. Then silence. We returned to our pastis. Twenty minutes later, another gust of boys, smoke and cops.

The next day, Chez Etienne, one of the great pizza restaurants and usually crammed, seated us within seconds. Post-coffee, we decided to track down the rioters. From the British newspapers you’d have thought the Marseille disturbances were impossible to avoid. In fact, they were hard to spot. We did eventually find a thicket of riot cops gathering in the alleyways. For the first time I sensed unease. The lovely old gun shop opposite Maison Empereur that we’d been admiring earlier in the day had been broken into. A few antique rifles had been pinched, it transpired, but were quickly recovered.

Afterwards, I headed back into the centre of town. There was a festive spirit in the air. Sweet old ladies in hijabs handed out masks.

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