With her pink-and-orange hair and pierced lower lip, Manuella Pereira considers herself a rebel standing up for fellow young people across France.
But the diminutive 17-year-old from a well-to-do suburb learned a harsh lesson about solidarity when she went to Paris last week to join a student march on the majestic esplanade of the Invalides military monument.
“A friend of mine got robbed and I got tear-gassed,” said Pereira, a student at Albert Schweitzer High School in Le Raincy. In scenes recorded by television cameras, swarms of hooded, masked youths infiltrated the march Thursday in an upscale tourist district in the heart of Paris, beating and stomping the marchers, stealing their cellphones and money, and torching cars.
The mayhem recalled last year’s riots in outlying, immigrant-dominated housing projects -- for good reason, police say. Many of the marauders at the Invalides and in similar incidents elsewhere were not students, but unemployed dropouts from the projects, they say.
“On one side, the cars burning, and on the other, people with their families marching peacefully,” Pereira said. “The [vandals] don’t care about their future. They just want to perpetrate violence no matter what.”
As France braces for major nationwide strikes to protest a new labor law today, an embattled government confronts two youth crises that threaten to converge with resounding impact.
One involves the students, mostly middle-class and wealthy activists whose movement has shut down high schools and universities with the kind of rowdy, but essentially nonviolent, protests to which the French are accustomed. Joined by France’s powerful labor unions, the students accuse the government of endangering their future job security with proposed labor reforms.
The second involves another world: the bleak, crime-ridden public housing projects where unemployment among young people can approach 50%. Youths there want a better future too, but they tend to express their discontent with nihilistic outbursts of arson and vandalism.
Tension between the two is evident on the streets. On Monday morning, more than a hundred vandals went on a rampage outside a high school occupied by student protesters in Saint-Denis, a tough suburb near the birthplace of the November riots, and burned cars and threw stones.
Such incidents are spreading, according to leaders of cities that bore the brunt of the riots and have been on alert for the last four months. They worry that the labor protests could set off new and potentially worse troubles.
“The same [troublemakers] as in November are reappearing, but this time in broad daylight,” Deputy Mayor Jean-Christophe Lagarde of Drancy, a town just north of Paris, said in the newspaper Le Parisien.
Describing how youths outside her school had terrorized an elderly woman, smashing the windows of her car, an inexpensive compact called a Twingo, Pereira said indignantly: “That poor lady the other day had no idea what was going on. Go trash a Mercedes if you want, but not a Twingo!”
The mayhem shatters any illusions about unity among France’s young people. In fact, gangs who disrupt marches and attack the protesters often feel contempt for students, whom they see as privileged and weak rich kids, a police intelligence commander said.
Police are struggling to contain the casseurs, as the roving vandals are known. The emerging crime trend breaks dangerously with previous violence that was confined to housing projects and directed mainly against property and police, said the commander, who oversees a rough area near Paris.
“There’s great hostility toward the high-schoolers and the university students, a kind of social racism against the young bourgeoisie,” he said. “It’s serious. Ninety percent of the kids from the projects don’t leave their territory to engage in that kind of activity. That’s why the riots were in the projects. But here you have acquisitive, destructive violence. Like highway banditry. The idea is to rob, destroy, spread fear. It’s a show of force. It has no political aspect for the moment.”
There have been a few precedents. Last March, a demonstration by Paris high school students against education reforms degenerated into muggings and robberies that left dozens injured. The aggressors were gangs from outlying areas, and some told journalists and investigators that their goal was to “beat up little white kids,” according to “Slums in Flames,” a recent book by Charles Pelligrini, former chief of an elite detective division of the national police.
But the animosity tends to be more about social class than race. Gangs from housing projects are often a mix of youths from Arab, African and French backgrounds, experts say.
Young people realize that the political confrontation over the labor law has put them in the eye of the storm.
“The marches are a good opportunity for the casseurs to restart the same riots as in November,” said Lionel Mayaula, an 18-year-old of African descent who studies economics at Albert Schweitzer High School. “I’m sure that’s what will happen if it goes on like this.”
Mayaula has misgivings about the protests that have paralyzed universities and high schools. He thinks the new labor law proposed by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin could induce employers to hire young people, especially the unemployed and unskilled. The law responds to complaints that overly rigid protections prevent hiring; it creates a two-year probationary period during which employees under 26 can be dismissed without cause.
The protesters “all think they will enter working life and find a good job immediately,” said the lanky Mayaula, who wore a dark blue NFL jersey under a long parka with the hood pulled up. “They seem to forget that it requires some experience to find a good job. The [law] sounds good to me for acquiring experience.”
But student leaders say they are defending cherished job security against a government that does not understand the anger of French youth.
“The crisis that the country is experiencing ... translates into the incidents on the edge of marches, the incidents that we all deplore,” Karl Stoeckel, president of the National High School Union, said at a news conference outside the prime minister’s Matignon Palace residence Saturday.
As a shaggy-haired activist wearing a red clown nose and roller skates rolled back and forth in front of a row of riot police, Stoeckel declared that “a gulf exists between the young people and the government. It has not realized that you don’t impose a future on young people -- you consult them.”
Police will deploy in large numbers today at marches nationwide, on alert for right- and left-wing extremists as well as street gangs. Strikes are expected to shut down schools, transit and business, bringing the country to a near-stop.
The landscape of Paris’ fashionable Left Bank has turned ominous. Checkpoints, steel anti-riot barricades and police buses block historic narrow lanes and stone plazas. Riot police in body armor stand guard near the Pantheon, the National Assembly, the Eiffel Tower. Police promise they will react more quickly than they did Thursday, when they were criticized for hesitating to intervene as gangs pummeled high-schoolers with seeming impunity.
But the presence of political parties and well-disciplined unions with experienced security teams will reduce the likelihood of violence today, the police intelligence commander said. The main concern remains the housing projects, especially if protests and accompanying tension persist, he said.
“That’s the big question: Will there be a contagion?” the commander said. “If the kids in the housing projects do anything, it’s most likely they will express themselves in their own way and on their own territory.”
Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz contributed to this report.