In France, a fragile calm masks a rage that still simmers

Posted in Europe | 28-Dec-05 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

A car burns during a riot in the Paris suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil November 3, 2005.
BONDY, France "Burn!" An angry knot of young men join their voices in a battle cry as they edge closer to the silhouette of a parked Mercedes, some of them aiming what look like handguns, others reaching for lighters.

In the harsh light of an underground parking lot in this grim suburb northwest of Paris, the guns and lighters are imaginary, but the sense of aggression is real. As one of the young men films with a digital camera, the others move to the angry beat of music blasting out of an open car door, echoing into the dark December night.

They sing about the riots that erupted two months ago, about being Muslim and about not feeling French in France. For them the unrest is not over, it is waiting to break loose again.

"The quiet is deceptive," says Bala Coulibaly, 24, his eyes scanning a deserted housing project from deep inside his sweatshirt hood. He goes by the nickname Balastik and comes from nearby Clichy-sous-Bois, where the accidental death of two teenagers on Oct. 27 set off three weeks of rioting in immigrant neighborhoods across France.

Since then, the whiff of gasoline and tear gas has disappeared. But the calm is fragile, impatient and tinged with the cynicism of youths who fear being let down again by a political class that allowed mass unemployment and social exclusion to accumulate over three decades in the poor suburbs ringing France's big cities.

"The rage in the suburbs is only asleep," said Balastik, a French youth of Mauritanian origin who has been jobless since dropping out of school seven years ago and is dreaming of a career as a rapper with his band, Styladone. "It wouldn't take much to wake it up again."

Social workers and nongovernmental organizations working in the suburbs say they are managing the calm from one day to the next. The police are on high alert ahead of what promises to be a tense New Year's Eve in France, where even in normal years hundreds of cars are torched.

"The apparent calm that reigns today should not suggest that the real problem is solved," the French police intelligence service, Renseignements Généraux, said in a report leaked to the newspaper Le Parisien this month.

Indeed, a ban on sales of gasoline in plastic containers, promulgated Nov. 10, remains in place, as does a state of emergency that allows local officials to impose curfews and gives special powers to the police.

"New Year's is a concern every year," said Franck Louvrier, the Interior Ministry spokesman. "But after the riots we are more vigilant than usual. That is one reason why we extended the state of emergency to February."

In the first three weeks of November, some 10,000 cars were torched and several hundred public buildings vandalized across France in the worst social unrest since the student-worker rebellion in 1968. Some 4,770 people were taken into custody on suspicion of rioting. Convicted youths without French nationality face possible expulsion from the country.

At the same time, the government announced a raft of measures aimed at fighting joblessness and discrimination and declared 2006 the year of "equal opportunity." Businesses will be offered tax breaks for setting up shop in difficult suburbs, local schools will receive more attention, a new apprenticeship plan for teenagers is being set up, and state money for nongovernmental organizations is to be restored after an absence of three years.

President Jacques Chirac, clearly shaken by the riots, has urged the French news media and businesses to reflect the country's diverse population. The minister for equal opportunity, Azouz Begag, is pondering ways of measuring diversity in order to provide companies with a benchmark.

But in suburbs like Bondy and Clichy-sous-Bois, where some people decline to give a last name to reporters, the buzz and debate sparked by the riots is dismissed by many as little more than political posturing.

"Right now they're afraid of us, so they're making a lot of promises," said Ker, 24, a friend of Balastik's who sings in the same band and whose parents came from Cambodia. "What we need is concrete action that is felt here, on the ground."

According to Marilou Jampolsky, a spokeswoman for SOS Racisme, which fights discrimination, nongovernmental organizations like hers have not seen the state money restored. She said that would have been one of the quickest ways for the government to make a "tangible" difference in people's lives.

Outside City Hall in Clichy-sous-Bois, Mehdi, 24, a Frenchman of Algerian-Moroccan origin, said the private group for disadvantaged youths he works for had not seen any of the new money promised by the government.

"The faster some of the promises are transformed into action the better," said Mehdi, who grew up in Clichy. "We are taking the temperature with people every day. They are waiting for changes that they feel in everyday life - and they are also waiting for justice for the two dead teenagers."

The trigger for the November violence was the accidental electrocution of two teenagers of African origin who hid in a power substation. A third teenager, who survived the incident, says the three friends were being pursued by the police, a claim officers deny. The outcome of an investigation is keenly awaited in the suburbs. If the police are exonerated, it could trigger new unrest, Mehdi said.

Back in the parking lot in Bondy, Balastik mimes lighting a lighter, his eyes glimmering in the harsh light. One of his friends is wearing a red T-shirt reading "Rakaille" - a rap spelling of "racaille," or "thugs," the term Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy used to describe the rioters at one point, fueling their anger.

"We're thugs and we're proud," Balastik quipped, adding that music is "one way of dealing with the frustration of never getting a reply to your job application."

Others channel their anger differently. Cars have continued to burn every night since the riots ended, including more than 100 across France on Christmas Eve.

Some private groups have launched a campaign with minority celebrities like the rap singer Joey Starr and the comedian Jamel Debbouze to get suburban youths to register for the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.

"One thing the riots have shown is that theses kids are desperate for attention," said Samir Mihi, a social worker in Clichy-sous-Bois. "We're trying to tell them that you matter most when you vote, that's when politicians have to start listening to you."

He said he was concerned that a new outbreak of violence - or even intensified media coverage of burning cars on New Year's Eve - would strengthen parties with anti-immigrant platforms.

"The more people are afraid, the more they will demand security policies rather than social policies," Mihi said. "That is precisely what is not in the interest of these kids."

But Balastik and his friends are unimpressed.

"I've never seen a politician represent me in my life," Balastik said. "Why vote if nothing ever changes anyway?"