Riots Put a Fear in the French

Times Staff Writer

Rioters fired at police, stoned commuter trains and torched a school, shops and hundreds of vehicles in tough immigrant suburbs Thursday, spurring French authorities to deploy 1,000 riot police on an eighth night of street violence.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin held emergency meetings aimed at avoiding a crisis that the French have feared for years: large-scale disturbances in restive slums where youths of African and Arab descent feel rage against society.

“Order and justice will be the final word in our country,” said De Villepin, who met with top Cabinet ministers and mayors from the affected communities. “The return to calm and the restoration of public order are the priority, our absolute priority.”


But after dusk fell Thursday, new outbreaks took place in half a dozen communities in the heavily industrial, immigrant-dominated area north of Paris. Five police officers were injured by projectiles, about 400 cars were torched, and 27 buses -- most of them in a depot -- were burned overnight, authorities reported this morning.

Nonetheless, police said there were not as many violent clashes as the previous night, when hundreds of young men rampaged in 20 working-class communities that are a few miles north of the Paris city limits but a world away from the capital’s glittering tourist attractions.

Police made more than 41 arrests early Thursday morning and Thursday night.

Four police officers and two firefighters were injured in clashes late Wednesday and early Thursday. During that same period in four locations shots were fired at police, an unusual occurrence in France, but no one was hit, authorities said. Traffic was interrupted on a commuter rail line to Charles de Gaulle International Airport northeast of the city early Thursday morning after rioters hurled rocks at two trains.

Violent disturbances are nothing new in the bleak public housing projects on the urban periphery, where intelligence officials say that the two most powerful social forces are the drug underworld and Islamic activism. Even minor incidents pitting police against youths periodically set off arson attacks on cars and assaults on symbols of the state: postal workers, firefighters, day-care centers.

But the current rioting has lasted longer than in the past and spread alarmingly, authorities say, because of accumulated frustration and tension and incitement by small-time gangsters trying to reassert control over turf. Although Islamic extremism is seen as a serious problem in some of the affected neighborhoods, there is no indication that fundamentalist leaders have encouraged the unrest, officials say.

This week’s events have been “extraordinary,” said a police intelligence chief who oversees a number of hot spots. “The global situation has been extremely difficult in the slums, even if a lot of people didn’t realize that. There has been a convergence of unfortunate events. And now you have the kingpins who are pushing kids to go out and destroy. The kingpins know we need calm to fight the underworld economy.”

The chief precipitating event for the riots came Oct. 27 in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois when two teenagers died by electrocution while hiding from police in an electrical substation. One youth was of Tunisian descent, and the other was born in Mauritania. The two were at a soccer game when police arrived; the teenagers reportedly fled to the fatal hiding place, though investigators say police were not chasing them. Nonetheless, neighborhood youths began setting fires, destroying property and attacking police and firefighters.

On the same day the teenagers died, police in nearby Epinay arrested three men who allegedly beat a visiting photographer to death. The man worked for a lighting company and had stopped his car at a housing project to take pictures of light fixtures when he was assaulted in front of his family, police said.

The incident contributed to generalized tension, the intelligence official said. So did a visit Oct. 26 to the gritty town of Argenteuil by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, part of the popular leader’s campaign to take back poor areas with tough policing.

A group of youths clashed with Sarkozy’s entourage and threw objects at him, an incident instigated partly by known Islamic fundamentalists, the intelligence official said. The minister responded by calling his antagonists “thugs.”

Because of that comment and similar language after the riots began, Sarkozy has found himself in the spotlight. Residents of affected areas have alternately taken his words as an insult and a challenge. A youth in hard-hit Aulnay-sous-Bois told Le Monde newspaper this week: “This is just the start. We aren’t going to stop until Sarkozy resigns.”

Sarkozy is part of De Villepin’s center-right government, but they are longtime rivals and presidential hopefuls. Despite their promises to work together, Liberation newspaper calls their shadow feud over the riots a “gang fight in the government.”

Azouz Begag, the Cabinet minister for equal opportunity, accused Sarkozy of pouring gasoline on the flames with his combative language and televised forays onto rough turf.

Urging Sarkozy to avoid “warlike semantics,” Begag said: “He needs to stop going with cameras and journalists to poor and sensitive areas.”

Sarkozy’s allies retorted that Begag acted as a proxy for De Villepin in attacking Sarkozy, who has taken credit for lowering the crime rate during two tenures as interior minister. Sarkozy insisted this week that the response to riots should be law and order, not polite language.

“If someone shoots at the police, he is not a ‘youth,’ he is a thug,” Sarkozy declared.

Despite France’s extensive social welfare programs and emphasis on civil rights, the weeklong tumult reiterates the persistent difficulties of integrating a predominantly Muslim minority beset by unemployment, crime and identity crisis.

“There’s a gap between what the politicians say and reality,” said Abd al Malik, a writer and rap artist who grew up in a housing project after his parents emigrated from the Republic of Congo. “Even the most banal incident can be a trigger because people are so frustrated. They are told this is their home, but they don’t feel it is their home.

“The government has to convince them that the Republic accepts them, that they are French. There has to be a real profound effort, because this has the potential to become really dramatic.”

Muslims make up close to 10% of France’s population, but the children and grandchildren of immigrants feel woefully unrepresented. Aside from Cabinet minister Begag, an Algerian-born sociologist, the immigrant community has produced few political leaders, even in cities dominated by minority groups.

“Despite all the people on the street, you see very few Africans or North Africans in politics, television; even in the police you have few people of immigrant origin,” Malik said.

De Villepin has promised to propose a concrete plan of action for depressed urban areas. The difficulty, analysts and police say, will be separating at-risk youths from criminals and extremists who capitalize on the moment. A spokesman for the Socialist Party warned leaders to make a long-term commitment to fixing urban problems, rather than accepting a temporary illusion of calm.

“What’s in play behind this violence is turf,” Julien Dray said during a televised discussion Thursday. “A certain number of religious extremists will say, ‘Let us handle things and you will have calm.’ Or a certain number of gangsters will say, ‘Don’t mess with our business and there will be no fires.’

“That’s why if we don’t put officials of high quality to work in these areas, I know what’s going to happen. The politicians will all surrender because they don’t want fires in their neighborhoods.”