Rebellions Led by African Immigrant Youth Swept France During 2005
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Anger Festering in French Areas Scarred in Riots
By ELAINE SCIOLINO and ARIANE BERNARD
New York Times
PARIS, Oct. 20 — When the call went out about a car burglary in the raw suburb of Épinay-sur-Seine north of here last weekend, three officers in a patrol car rushed over and found themselves surrounded by 30 youths in hoods throwing rocks and swinging bats and metal bars.
Neither tear gas nor stun guns stopped the assault. Only when reinforcements arrived did the siege end. One officer was left with broken teeth and in need of 30 stitches to his face.
The attack was rough but not unique. In the last three weeks alone, three similar assaults on the police have occurred in these suburbs, which a year ago were aflame with the rage of unemployed, undereducated youth, mostly the offspring of Arab and African immigrants.
In fact, with the anniversary of those riots approaching, spiking violent crime statistics across the area suggest not only that things have not improved, but that they also may well have worsened. Residents and experts say that fault lines run even deeper than before and that widespread violence may flare up again at any moment.
“Tension is rising very dramatically,” said Patrice Ribeiro, the deputy head of the Synergie Officiers police union. “There is the will to kill.”
Last month a leaked law enforcement memo warned of a “climate of impunity” in Seine-St.-Denis, the infamous district north of Paris that includes suburbs like Épinay-sur-Seine. It reported a 23 percent increase in violent robberies and a 14 percent increase in assaults in the district of 1.5 million people in the first half of this year, complaining that young, inexperienced police officers were overwhelmed and the court system was lax. Only one of 85 juveniles arrested during the unrest was jailed, it added.
In all of France, according to the Interior Ministry, 480 incidents of violence against the police were recorded in September, a 30 percent increase from the month before.
Next Friday is the first anniversary of the electrocution death of two teenagers as, according to some accounts at the time, they were running from the police in Clichy-sousBois. The tragedy set off a threeweek orgy of violence in which rioters throughout France torched cars, trashed businesses and ambushed police officers and firefighters, plunging the country into what President Jacques Chirac called “a profound malaise.”
Despite numerous vows to make big changes, local officials and residents say the shock of last year’s unrest did not lead to a coherent plan to create new jobs, better housing and education and more social services — or even to raise the consciousness of the citizenry.
“Ours is a population that truly has been abandoned to its sad fate,” said Claude Dilain, the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois and a pediatrician who recently wrote a book about the plight of his town.
“French society wants the poor to be squeezed into ghettos rather than have them living right next door,” he said. “It says, ‘Put the poor out there in the suburbs, but avoid violence at all costs so that all goes well and we don’t have to talk about them anymore.’ Our people feel betrayed. All the conditions are there for it to blow up again.”
Clichy-sous-Bois is worse off than many other suburbs. It has no local police station, no movie theater, no swimming pool, no unemployment office, no child welfare agency, no subway or interurban train into the city.
For even some of the most crime-ridden suburbs, it is a 20-minute ride into central Paris. For Clichy-sous-Bois, depending on whether there is space on the bus, it can take an hour and a half. Unemployment sits at 24 percent, much higher among young people. Thirty-five percent of the population consists of foreigners, many non-French-speaking. The town’s only municipal gymnasium and sports center was torched during last year’s unrest.
When Nadia Boudaoud, 27, a part-time educator, was asked why her family moved from Clichy-sous-Bois two years ago, she gave three reasons: the noise, the garbage and the rats.
As part of an effort to mark the events of a year ago and to bring a touch of Paris buzz to the town of 23,000, an ambitious photo exhibit about daily life there was opened a week ago.
It was a heady evening featuring the works of a dozen world-renowned photographers, including Marc Riboud, William Klein and Sarah Moon, who mingled with hundreds of local residents. Visitors were met at the entrance with long white panels bearing photos of the two teenage victims, Bouna Traoré, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17.
Mr. Dilain, the mayor, had high hopes for the opening to send a message and invited many French officials, including Mr. Chirac. A message was sent, but not the one he had hoped. Not one official showed up. “It is symptomatic of the absence of interest in us,” he said. “I’m ashamed for France.”
Interviews with residents and officials in half a dozen similar suburbs ringing Paris in recent weeks reflected the conviction that the government’s main interest in them is to maintain security in advance of the presidential election next spring.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and front-runner for the governing center-right party’s nomination, has staked his reputation on an uncompromising attitude toward young offenders. But his increase in the number of police officers in the suburbs — many of them from faraway parts of France — has meant more harassment and random searches of young people, fueling complaints that they are unfairly singled out.
The anger of those young men is apparent in music popular in the suburbs. In her latest album, the rap singer Diam’s accuses Mr. Sarkozy of being a demagogue and the police of hypocrisy. The rapper Booba proclaims in one song, “Maybe it would be better to burn Sarko’s car,” while Alibi Montana, another rapper, warns Mr. Sarkozy, “Keep going like that, and you’re going to get done.”
The front-runner for the Socialist Party, Ségolène Royal, has offered her own proposals to curb youth violence, including military-led training programs to deal with young offenders and mandatory counseling for parents of unruly primary school children.
Clearly the French favor a tough line on security issues. According to an Ifop poll for Le Figaro published last month, 77 percent said the judicial system was not harsh enough on young offenders and 74 percent said the police should be given more powers to fight crime in the suburbs.
In the wake of the unrest last fall the government announced measures to improve life in the suburbs, including extra money for housing, schools and neighborhood associations and counseling and job training for unemployed youths. None have gone very far.
Legislation promoting the “equality of chances” that was passed with much fanfare last March has been largely ineffectual. An initiative to create blue-collar apprenticeships for teenagers from the age of 14, for example, has been criticized for removing children from the public education system at too early an age.
Another law, aimed at curbing illegal immigration — and deporting youthful offenders — ignored the fact that most suburban youths are French. A law to spur youth employment was abandoned after huge street demonstrations against it last spring.
The government said this week that it needed more
“experimentation” before carrying out an initiative requiring corporations with more than 50 employees to use anonymous résumés. That was aimed at curbing discrimination against job seekers with foreign-sounding names from troubled neighborhoods.
In any case, many young job seekers and community activists consider the initiative gimmicky, even humiliating.
“We have to fight discrimination, not disguise differences as if differences are a crime,” said Samir Mihi, a founder of Aclefeu, an association created in Clichy-sous-Bois to promote the suburbs.
In an exercise that aims to celebrate the identity of the job applicant, another organization, A.P.C., has started an alternative project — the videotaped résumé — that trains job seekers how to sell themselves on camera.
At a training and taping session in the Paris suburb of Nanterre this week, Mariama Goudyaby, 33, said she had been looking for a job as a receptionist for six months but had been turned down 15 times.
“When I come, they see ‘she is black,’ ” she said. “And then they say, ‘We’ve already found somebody.’ With the video I get my revenge on discrimination: ‘You like me, it’s me. You don’t like me, too bad.’ ”
Certainly there have been changes since last year’s unrest, although many are symbolic or cosmetic.
The television channel TF1, for example, assigned Harry Roselmack, 33, a black broadcaster of French Caribbean descent, to anchor the main evening news for six weeks this summer, the first time a Frenchman of color has served as an anchor. He became an overnight sex symbol and national hero.
The Henri IV public high school, one of the best in Paris, last month recruited 30 students from underprivileged backgrounds for its preparatory program, which feeds some of France’s most elite universities.
Marking anniversaries is deeply embedded in French tradition, so a number of events are scheduled in the prelude to Oct. 27. But at a town meeting in the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois on Wednesday, some speakers worried aloud about the street chatter they were hearing from young people about “celebrating” it.
“The most violent of them think of it in terms of a celebration,” said Franck Cannarozzo, a deputy mayor there. “For them, last year was a victory over authority.”
But for a 25-year-old man who lives in Clichy-sous-Bois and declined to give his name, the day will be one of mourning, not celebration. He said he had been showing the two teenagers how to play a new video game in his building’s basement the night before they were electrocuted.
“It is the anniversary,” he said, “of a death.”