Rioting Youths See ‘No Future’
Dusk drew the homeboys to their usual hangout spot Monday on Maxim Gorky Boulevard, illuminated by the green neon sign of a telephone shop, the entrance to an African grocery, the lights of an aging apartment building.
It looked as drab as ever, but the youths lounging in hooded sweatshirts and high-tops knew their street had just entered history. Their neighbor, retiree Jean-Jacques le Chenadec, died Monday of injuries he suffered last week in an assault next to the grocery, becoming the first person to die in 12 days of unrest.
The fire, fury and destruction have shaken France’s conflict-ridden and uneasily multiethnic society, and the death seemed to push the conflict across yet another ominous line. For the most part, though, the two dozen young men -- ranging from the early teens to the early 30s -- shrugged off the news. In alternating bursts of anger, laughter and solemnity, they tried to explain why France has been plunged into such upheaval.
“I condemn what happened to that gentleman, but I am not surprised by what is happening,” said a bull-shouldered 31-year-old of African descent who identified himself as Murphy. He said the woes of men his age drive the nihilistic rage of boys as young as 14 who torch their neighbors’ cars, day-care centers, schools and shops.
“They respect us, but they see how bad our situation is,” Murphy said, gesturing at his younger friends. “Looking at us, they see they have no future. We went to school, did what we were supposed to do. Now we can’t get a job. Because you live in a certain neighborhood, because you have a foreign name. There’s a Mercedes factory here that has 100 employees. Not one of them lives in Stains. They hire outsiders.”
The death in Stains captured in microcosm the tension and despair of Paris’ fading industrial suburbs. In this edgy, crime-ridden town of 32,000, the street names -- Gorky, Stalingrad -- and the Communist-run City Hall recall a long-gone boom in blue-collar jobs that drew waves of North Africans to France four decades ago.
Le Chenadec was part of the aging native French population that lives warily alongside the children and grandchildren of North African, Asian and black immigrants. Told they are French but treated as outsiders, the youths are adrift in joblessness, crime and, more than ever, unfocused rage.
The beefy, white-mustached Le Chenadec, 61, was a retired auto worker and a leader of the residents’ council in his building. On Friday, he went outside with a neighbor to check on a fire ignited in garbage cans -- a spark compared with the walls of flame that have swept this depressed region north of Paris.
A man of about 20 approached and exchanged words with the two residents. Then he knocked Le Chenadec to the pavement with a crushing punch. The assailant has not been captured.
“I saw the commotion from my window,” said Sarda, a Turkish-born 22-year-old, pointing at one of the faded, six-story buildings lining the boulevard. “First the smoke, then a crowd gathering. And I heard later that someone beat down that old guy. He went outside to put out the fire, and they really gave it to him. And it just keeps going. Every day, more fire.”
Asked why the riots have been so fierce, Sarda, who like others refused to give his last name, shrugged. He said too many young men were idle in a country whose 10% unemployment rate triples and quadruples in places such as Stains.
“I don’t do anything,” Sarda said. “No more school for me. I’d like to find a job in an auto body shop” -- he nodded at the Midas garage a few yards away. “But it’s impossible. That’s why the kids are angry.”
Around him youths cavorted, wheeling around on bikes, nodding to the sounds of iPods and cellphones. They jeered at the politicians, journalists and dozens of residents who held a memorial for the slain man.
No one on the boulevard admitted participating in the riots. Nor did they excuse the death of Le Chenadec. But one muttered that the dead man had a reputation for belligerence and comments with a racist tinge.
“The kind of French guy with a mean dog who was always saying, ‘This is my building, back off,’ that kind of thing,” said a neighbor who asked to remain anonymous.
Minority youths are sick of hearing words that they consider discriminatory. That’s why many have declared tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, often referred to as Sarko, their nemesis.
“It’s Sarko’s fault! Sarko resign! It won’t stop until he resigns!” declared Ahmed, 17, lean and resplendent in an off-white athletic suit. He chuckled as a friend mockingly slapped onto his chest one of the white stickers handed out at the memorial event. It read, “Together Against Violence.”
Ahmed’s tone had the sardonic ring of a slogan. The anti-Sarkozy battle cry recurs in graffiti scrawled on smoking ruins and in “riot blogs” where youths boast of pyromaniac exploits and challenge rival neighborhoods to outdo them.
“Sarkozy opened his mouth and called us thugs,” said a teenager named Bilal. “Young people don’t like being called thugs.”
Bilal was referring to an exchange two weeks ago when Sarkozy was visiting a housing project. The minister, who is consistently popular in opinion polls, was implored by a woman to do something about the criminals and “thugs” in the area. Sarkozy repeated the term in response to her appeal, according to a detailed reconstruction of the event by a television news program. But such nuances have been consumed by the anger in the streets.
As a fire engine and ambulance wailed on the boulevard Monday, Murphy, a convert to Islam, said the predominantly Muslim rioters have also been spurred by a sense that their religion is under siege.
He recalled an incident in which police were accused of firing a tear gas canister into a mosque. Authorities said the projectile never entered the house of worship, but the rumor did the damage.
“You don’t mess with religion,” Murphy said. “Let me tell you something, this could get worse. Until now the kids have only gone after property. Except for the gentleman who got killed right here, there weren’t any deaths. But now they might start attacking people. And that will really be bad.”
Murphy said he was a “big brother,” part of the generation of men between 25 and 35 who had hit the streets trying to stop the rampaging.
Late Monday, authorities reported that the riots continued into their 12th night with an arson assault on a bus in Toulouse and other disturbances. The previous night’s violence resulted in a record damage toll, with 1,400 vehicles burned in 274 towns, said Michel Gaudin, director of the national police.
Possible copycat violence was reported in Belgium and Germany. Five cars burned near a Brussels train station, which is in an immigrant neighborhood, and five were torched in Berlin’s mixed neighborhood of Moabit.
The violence appears to have decreased slightly in the Paris region, where it originated, while “a sort of shock wave” has spread across French provincial towns, Gaudin said during a news conference Monday morning.
That evening, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced a plan to restore peace. He said the government would deploy 1,500 more law enforcement officers in addition to the 8,000 already on the streets and authorize emergency curfews as necessary under a rarely used 1955 law. For the moment, he ruled out use of the military.
In addition, De Villepin promised new programs to improve education, city services and funding for community associations in certain neighborhoods. The government will accelerate a $40-billion overhaul of the hundreds of housing projects dominated by working-class immigrants and their descendants.
Politicians are to blame for the explosion of violence, said Jean, a 31-year-old merchant on Maxim Gorky Boulevard who requested that his full name not be used. He said the current center-right government has been overly aggressive on policing after it replaced the center-left, which he considered far too soft, three years ago.
“They went from one extreme to the other, and the young people suffered,” he said. “The police harass them. What we need is the right balance.”
The merchant said his experience defied stereotypes. Although he is Jewish and lives in an area where a synagogue was firebombed in July, Jean said he had not had problems with his mostly Muslim neighbors and customers.
“I hire people from here,” he said. “They appreciate the way I treat everyone well; I say hello. And not only do they not bother me, they sometimes watch out for me.”