Le Paris Flambe

Le Paris flamb
Once more Nicolas Sarkozy has faced rioting in the French suburbs

Nov 29th 2007 | PARIS
From The Economist print edition

TWO years ago, it took three weeks and a state of emergency to end the riots in France's troubled banlieues. So when violence broke out this week in Villiers-le-Bel, a rough suburb north of Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy, interior minister in 2005, was determined to prevent a repeat performance. Police reinforcements, brought in after two nights of car-burning and confrontation, helped to calm the streets. Yet fears remain that, at the slightest provocation, the violence could start again.

As in 2005, the riots were triggered by the deaths of two youths in a clash with police. This time two teenagers, riding a mini-motorbike without crash helmets, were killed in a collision with a police car on November 25th. How it happened is unclear; a judicial inquiry has begun. But by nightfall, rioters were on the rampage. Over two nights of violence, they torched scores of cars and rubbish bins, a police station, a nursery school, a library, shops, a car dealer and a McDonald's. Other banlieues north of Paris and in Toulouse saw car-burnings. Some 130 policemen were wounded, several seriously.

Hot foot from his visit to China, Mr Sarkozy set a hardline tone. After visiting in hospital a police chief wounded during the first night of violence, he vowed that anybody who fired at the police would end up in a criminal court, calling it attempted murder. In 2005 rioters wielded only petrol bombs and stones; this time many policemen were hit by gunshots. An official report before the riots noted a rise in attacks on policemen in the banlieues.

Local (mainly Socialist) mayors have been giving warning for a while that, two years on, tensions remain high. Not that these grim neighbourhoods have been neglected. They have had a huge injection of public cash, primarily for the renovation of the housing projects that ring the big cities. Tower blocks have been demolished, streets have been relaid and lighting has been improved.

Mr Sarkozy, who was demonised in the banlieues during the election campaign for his harsh anti-immigrant stance, appointed a left-wing Muslim woman, Fadela Amara, as a minister to deal with the inner cities. Her Marshall plan for the banlieues is due in January. By including her, as well as others from ethnic minorities, in government, he sent a message of inclusion to the heavily Muslim suburbs.

Even so, the two biggest problems in these neighbourhoods remain. The first is the failure of the French economy to create enough jobs. Unemployment in what officialdom coyly calls sensitive urban areas is twice the national average; on the worst estates, it can hit 40%. Mr Sarkozy wants to loosen the labour market to encourage job creation, but negotiations with unions are still in progress.

The second is the tense relationship between the police and local youths. France is hamstrung by a sterile debate between left and right over policing. The left insists that things have deteriorated since neighbourhood policing was dismantled, and blames the right for its more heavy-handed approach. Mr Sarkozy insists that earlier methods were too lax, treating policemen like social workers not law-enforcement officers. He prefers a strong hand to clamp down on criminality.

These riots have come at a testing time for Mr Sarkozy's six-month-old presidency. He has just endured a nine-day public-transport strike against pension reform, which brought chaos to the roads and enraged commuters. Another one-day strike is planned on December 18th. Students have blockaded university campuses for weeks in protest at higher-education reform. Magistrates staged a one-day strike this week against judicial reform.

There is no suggestion that the two protestsone planned and union-based, the other spontaneousare linked. And public opinion is firmly on Mr Sarkozy's side in both. But war on two fronts is always testing. It is one thing to deal with organised and peaceful discontent on the streets. The criminal violence that broke out this week is far less predictable.