Chirac urges calm as suburban riots spread

Posted in Europe | 03-Nov-05 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

French President Jacques Chirac.
AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France President Jacques Chirac appealed for calm on Wednesday after rioting spread in several of the suburbs surrounding Paris and criticism of the government's handling of the crisis grew louder.

For six successive nights, angry youths have clashed with the police in housing projects on the northern fringe of the capital, vast pockets of concrete that are home to many immigrants.

In the latest violence, early Wednesday, about 180 cars were set on fire in the greater Paris region and 34 people were arrested, police officials said.

The nightly riots, which first erupted in one suburb, Clichy-sous-Bois, after two teenagers died there last Thursday, have since spread to at least nine neighboring towns. They have also reignited a debate about how to halt the cycle of immigration, joblessness and crime in these impoverished areas, which lie a mere 15-minute car ride away from Paris's affluent center.

Chirac waded into the debate on Wednesday by calling for a firm response to the violence. But in an apparent effort to ward off criticism of police heavy-handedness, the president also urged dialogue.

"Tempers need to cool," Chirac told ministers during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. "We can't have a law-free zone in the Republic," he went on to say. "A lack of dialogue and an escalation of disrespectful behavior will lead to a dangerous situation."

According to residents in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the worst-hit suburban towns on Wednesday morning, the situation has already become dangerous.

Abdel Srhiri, 52, a Moroccan immigrant, said that when he was taking a walk with his family after dinner on Tuesday, he witnessed riot police firing rubber bullets at local teenagers, who in turn hurled bottles at the officers.

"Bullets were flying through the air and there was broken glass - it was war, right here," said Srhiri, pointing to a commercial center. He said in his 28 years in France - and in this neighborhood - he had never seen anything like this. "There is real aggression in the air."

In several interviews, residents reflecting on the sudden escalation of violence said they wanted peace to return to their neighborhood. But few expressed trust in the government or the police to restore order - indeed, many said recent hard-line comments by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy had only made things worse.

Sarkozy, who is also the head of the governing Union for a Popular Movement and is vying with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to become his party's presidential candidate in 2007, has promised to "clean" the suburbs of their "riffraff" and fight a "war without mercy" in an open bid to attract far-right voters.

"The kids here have understood Nicolas Sarkozy's message as a declaration of war," said Mohammed Benali, 51, shaking his head at the burned-out carcass of a car. "He has provoked them, and his riot police with their rubber bullets and water cannon have provoked them, too."

Criticism of the police among Muslim communities has grown louder ever since two teenagers, aged 15 and 17, were electrocuted after reportedly fleeing from the police last Thursday and hiding near an electrical transformer in Clichy-sous-Bois, setting off the first round of riots. Three days later a tear-gas grenade of the kind used by the police landed in one of the town's mosques. The government has promised to investigate both incidents; the police have said that they had not been chasing the youths.

Villepin on Wednesday postponed a trip to Canada, while Sarkozy canceled a visit in Afghanistan and Pakistan as both men scrambled to contain the wave of violence and criticism. The riots have become the latest issue to highlight the rivalry between the two men.

Like many residents here, Srhiri said he believed gangs of unruly youth demanded a firm hand. He recounted how earlier this week a group of teenagers broke into a van and stole about 500 pairs of running shoes he planned to sell on the market the next day.

But for him the images of Muslim youth hauling gasoline bombs and bottles at advancing police officers in riot gear have become a powerful illustration of the failure by France to integrate its citizens of North African descent.

"If the government really wants to solve the problems here they should do something about unemployment, discrimination and schools," he said.

In France, a third of an estimated six million citizens of North African descent live in suburban ghettos. Unemployment among Algerians and Moroccans, the largest immigrant groups, hovers above the 30 percent mark, compared with a nationwide rate of 9.6 percent, a study by the Paris-based Montaigne Institute showed last year.

According to Christophe Bertossi, an immigration specialist at the French Institute of International Relation in Paris, part of the problem is the concept that everyone in the country is equal.

Behind this veil of equality, he says, discrimination flourishes, feeding longstanding racial divisions and depriving immigrants of wealth and opportunity.

"The idea that we are all equal is fiction and these riots illustrate that," Bertossi said. "Ethnic minorities are a reality in France but they keep being told that they don't exist. Burning cars and throwing Molotov cocktails is one way of being noticed."