In Paris suburbs, anger won't cool

Posted in Europe | 04-Nov-05 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Riot police advance during clashes with French youths in Paris suburb of Aulnay sur Bois, early November 3, 2005, in a seventh night of rioting.
CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France Talk to people outside the Bilal mosque in this rundown suburb north of Paris and they will tell you what has gone wrong: why rioters for the past week have confronted the police in overnight bursts of anger in the streets, torching cars, hurling rocks and even firing bullets in the worst civil disobedience in France in more than a decade.

Beyond the poverty and despair of life in the shoddy immigrant communities ringing the shining French capital, local Muslims say, there is no one left with any sway over the rioting youths. Parents, the police and the government have all lost touch, they say.

On Thursday, after rioters disregarded an appeal for calm by President Jacques Chirac, firing bullets at the police for the first time as the rioting spread for a seventh consecutive night, the government held emergency meetings throughout the day. But despite Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's vow that "law and order will have the last word," the police were bracing for more violence as night fell.

In Clichy-sous-Bois on Thursday afternoon, outside the entrance of the Bilal mosque - a converted warehouse where a tear-gas grenade landed on Sunday, stoking fury against the police - celebrations of the end of the monthlong Ramadan fast were overshadowed by the widening disturbances.

Opinions about the riots among people gathered at the mosque differed, but everyone from the deputy imam to local council workers and men leaving the midday prayer agreed that the trouble has been compounded by a vacuum of moral authority.

"If you want authority over these kids you need their respect - but all the normal channels of authority lost their respect a long time ago," said Ali Aouad, 42, who has lived in this northeastern town for two decades. "They feel neglected by the government, and the police just provoke them."

Even the government's minister of equal opportunity, Azouz Begag, who himself grew up in an immigrant household outside Lyon, carries no authority here, residents said.

"Where has he been? He is representative of nothing and nobody," said a young man of Algerian descent, who identified himself only as H2B. "He has done nothing for us and now he is trying to compensate by criticizing Sarkozy," the French interior minister, "but it's too late."

The crisis has penetrated the top level of the French government, where Nicolas Sarkozy and Villepin, the two most senior ministers, are sparring over how to deal with the violence and have both come under fire for failing to bring the violence under control.

The trouble erupted in Clichy-sous-Bois on Oct. 27 after two teenagers, apparently thinking they were being pursued by the police, fled and were electrocuted when they hid in an electrical transformer. The disturbances have since spread to at least 20 neighboring towns.

In the early hours of Thursday, rioters torched 315 cars, burned a car dealership and a local supermarket, and attacked two commuter trains, the police said. Nine people were wounded.

But as appeals for calm by the government fell on deaf ears and a heavy police presence across the northern suburbs only appeared to provoke more violence, a number of local organizations seem to have quietly taken on the task of cooling tempers.

Abderamane Bouhout, president of the cultural organization that manages Bilal mosque, mobilized small groups of young believers during recent rioting to go between the rioters and the police and urge the disaffected youths to express their anger in nonviolent ways.

Aouad, who witnessed one such intervention on Monday night not far from the mosque, said it was impressively effective. "It worked," he said. "They went right between the two sides and a lot of the kids listened to them. The damage the next day was a lot less serious than the previous nights."

At the local city hall, Lamya Monkachi says the role of religious personalities along with that of young locals recruited from the suburbs to mediate for the city authorities has been key to reducing the violence in Clichy-sous-Bois in the past two days, even as it intensified in other suburbs. "What helped us here in Clichy to calm nerves was that we work a lot with people who know the local youths and speak their language," she said.

There are eight Muslim organizations in Clichy alone that have been mobilized to participate in starting a dialogue with the rioters. In addition, a group of youths, working closely with city hall, have formed an association in response to the riots last week called Beyond Words. Their representatives - young North African men dressed in white T-shirts with the names of the two dead teenagers printed on the back and the words "Dead for Nothing" on the front - have campaigned for peaceful dialogue.

But, says Marilou Jampolsky of SOS Racisme, a non-governmental organization fighting discrimination, the current government has made such informal mediation efforts more difficult by cutting back public funding for them.

"The number of neighborhood organizations that organize sports, help with school work and just generally check up on these kids has significantly declined since this government came to power" in 2002, she said. SOS Racisme, which also has local branches in suburbs, has lost half its money, she said.

One of the most prominent young mediators is Samir Mihi, 28, who has become an informal spokesman for the various groups that have stepped in to calm the violence and mediated between the rioters and the government.

According to Mihi, who grew up in Clichy, the key ingredient for restoring peace in this and other suburbs is to build relationships with the local youths and give them the feeling that their concerns are being heard.

"If they listen to us it is because we give them what they most want: respect," said Mihi, who organizes sports activities for teenagers at city hall. "If you respect them, they respect you."

One reason politicians fail to make themselves heard in the suburbs is that successive governments have failed to tackle disproportionately high unemployment and crime rates in the suburban housing projects, leaving youth with few opportunities. That feeling of exclusion is exacerbated by a lack of political representatives of North African origin and other role models, Mihi said.

The lack of moral authority is perhaps most flagrant with the police, locals said, because the interaction between officers and residents is often reduced to frequent and random identity checks that are perceived to be humiliating in the mainly North African communities in the suburbs.

At the local market, Muhammad, 24, who declined to give his last name, said such checks sometimes happen even outside his own apartment. He recounted how the police stopped him as he was walking home the night before.

"They grabbed me and touched my hood to see if it was hot or sweaty," he said, describing what he called a regular practice. "If you're caught with a sweaty hood, it means you've been running and that you have probably committed a crime."

Meanwhile, the parents of the teenagers in question lack authority because poverty has often made family life more difficult, says Jampolsky. Neither do they share the quest for identity so prevalent among the younger generation.