Unrest spreads from Paris to the provinces

Unrest spreads from Paris to the provinces

Nov 7th 2005
From The Economist Global Agenda

Rioting that began almost two weeks ago in run-down suburbs of Paris intensified and spread to other French cities at the weekend. The unrest, led by the disaffected children of immigrants, could be the biggest challenge to the government’s authority since the student riots of the 1960s




WHEN riots erupt in one of the biggest countries of the supposedly super-stable European Union (EU), it can be embarrassing for the government concerned. When those riots go on night after night for the best part of two weeks, only to continue getting worse, it starts to become truly alarming. On Sunday November 6th, the eleventh night in a row of unrest in France, the violence intensified and spread to new areas, despite promises from the country’s president and prime minister to stamp it out. What started with a few disaffected, mostly Muslim youths throwing rocks and burning cars on the outskirts of Paris is fast turning into a national crisis.

The trouble began on October 27th, when two North African teenagers were electrocuted in the shabby Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, apparently while fleeing the police. There followed a week of night-time riots in areas with large African and Arab communities in and around the capital. At the weekend, the government’s worst fears came true when the violence spread to other towns and cities. Of the 1,408 vehicles burnt on Sunday night, 982 were attacked outside the Paris region as the “shock wave? reached the rest of the country, in the words of Michel Gaudin, head of the national police.

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Some 395 people were arrested on Sunday, bringing the total number to over 800. The most serious incident took place in Grigny, south of Paris, where a mob on a housing estate ambushed police with stones, petrol bombs and even guns. Ten officers were injured, two seriously. Trouble was also reported in the provincial cities of Marseille, Lens, Saint-Etienne, Toulouse, Metz, Nice, Cannes, Strasbourg and Lille. In Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament, rioters threw petrol bombs into a primary school. In Toulouse, a blazing car was pushed into the entrance of a metro station and police had to use tear gas to disperse a mob wielding clubs.

The French government has seemed at times to be at a loss over how to react to the violence, which is arguably the most serious challenge to its authority since the student riots that rocked Paris in 1968. Ministers held emergency talks last week to discuss “sensitive urban zones?, but these did little to reassure the public or stop the trouble. Meanwhile, President Jacques Chirac was widely criticised for remaining silent. On Sunday, he finally called a meeting of top security officials and addressed the public. “The republic is completely determined to be stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear,? he said. “The last word must be from the law.? But while Mr Chirac promised arrest and punishment for rioters, he added that “respect for all, justice and equal opportunity? were needed to end the violence. Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the opposition Socialist Party in parliament, wrote in Le Figaro, a daily, that “the least we can say is that the government’s response has been confused and weak.?

Many of those involved in the rioting blame the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, for exacerbating tensions. Mr Sarkozy favours a zero-tolerance approach to urban violence, and in the days before the unrest began he angered many by calling troublemakers in poor districts “dregs?. But he has stood firm, and he remains popular: an opinion poll published in Le Parisien at the weekend gave him a nationwide approval rating of 57%. The current crisis has done nothing, so far, to dent his ambitions to succeed Mr Chirac as president.

The prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, who also has his eye on the presidency, has taken a more diplomatic approach, consulting with the leaders of immigrant communities and promising an “action plan? to address the anger of those in rundown neighbourhoods. He may release details of the plan on Monday evening, when he is expected to address the nation on television. A police organisation has called on the government to impose a curfew in riot-hit areas and send in the army to help restore order. Some 2,300 extra police officers have already been deployed.

France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim population—some 5m strong—and most of the youths confronting the police are French-born Muslims of Arab or African origin (though the children of Portuguese immigrants and native French are also reported to have taken part). In an effort to stop the violence and show it to be un-Islamic, one of France’s largest Muslim organisations has issued a fatwa, or religious order, forbidding “any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone’s life.?

With national unemployment of 10% and a poor Muslim population largely confined to grim suburban housing estates, where joblessness can be twice the national average or more, the ingredients for social explosion have long been brewing. Many feel trapped on the estates, which were built in the 1960s and 1970s to house waves of immigrant workers. The government, they say, has promised equality but failed to deliver. The hard-line policing methods espoused by Mr Sarkozy have added to their sense of grievance.

French policies on religion may also play a part. The government has roundly rejected multiculturalism—the idea that different cultural communities should be allowed to follow their own way of life. As a result, there are no programmes to promote ethnic minorities out of their ghettos. The state keeps officialdom and religion firmly apart, and Mr Chirac has banned Muslim headscarves (as well as “conspicuous? crucifixes) in state schools. Many Muslims have come to feel stigmatised since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, as France, along with other European countries, has cracked down on suspected Islamic extremists. Their sense of self-worth has hardly been boosted by growing French unease over allowing Muslim countries like Turkey into the EU.




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