New French Riots Speak Volumes

New French riots speak volumes

(PHOTO: Hundreds of youths pay tribute in Villiers le Bel, France today to the two teenagers who died when their motorcycle crashed into a police car on November 25, 2007.)

Two nights of youth violence in immigrant suburbs show little has changed since 2005.

By Geraldine Baum,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 28, 2007

VILLIERS-LE-BEL, FRANCE — They burned the library overnight during a riot in this gritty suburb outside Paris. The blackened shelves and books were thrown around like garbage the next morning, and singed desks were piled on top of one another like old firewood.

As they examined the wreckage Tuesday — the senator, the sports coach and the teenagers with sticks and pipes still walking around in the light of day — all had similar explanations. Why the arson up and down the commercial streets? Why the attack on a preschool and the area's only train station? The deaths of two teenagers after their motorbike collided Sunday with a police car had ignited a melee.

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But why two nights of unparalleled violence against police by disaffected youth?

“It's a way of making people understand we've had enough,” says Charlie Koissi, the 31-year-old coach who seems to know every kid who passes by and gives each one a high-five. “When you touch one of our brothers, no matter what [his] origin, it concerns us.”

Raymonde Le Texier, the senator who represents the area in Parliament and has lived here 40 years, describes pent-up rage by black and Muslim children of immigrants who feel lost and abandoned in the projects.

“People feel forgotten by those in power,” says Le Texier, a member of the Socialist Party. “It's the truth — they have been forgotten.”

As for the kids, they speak without words. They throw rocks at outsiders and stare angrily at officials such as Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who breezes quickly past the burned-out library and later calls the rioters “criminals.” Journalists with their relentless questions are circling around the kids, who half want to be heard and half want to fight them. No, they aren't talking today, and they shout down their “brothers” who try to speak.

By midnight the area had mostly calmed down, but bands of young people set more cars on fire and 22 youths were taken into custody, the regional government said. Unrest flared briefly in the city of Toulouse, in southern France, where 10 cars and another library were torched by roving posses of disaffected youth.

A world apart

Theirs is a world apart, with its own codes and subculture. When France was paralyzed for most of November by widespread strikes, the young in these poor neighborhoods remained calm, quietly enduring the chaos like everybody else. But then two of their own, identified as Moushin, 15, and Larimi, 16, lay dead on the street. They immediately blamed the cops. Cars were set on fire, and blurry photographs of the teenagers with “We Love You” written on them were taped on storefronts and street signs. This time around, the violence came faster and more furiously than in 2005.

During 200 nights of clashes between ghetto youth and riot police that year, there was only one death and sporadic injuries. But after only two nights of confrontations this week, 80 police officers were hospitalized, including six who were seriously injured when rioters assaulted them with stones, gas bombs and firecrackers. At least two dozen officers were hit by pellets fired from guns.

“We're not talking about urban violence anymore, we're talking about insurrection,” says Patrice Ribeiro, head of the police union Synergie Officers. “It's more violent than in 2005. . . . We have armed people shooting at police. We knew it was going to happen and it happened.”

The senator, the sports coach and the kids with sticks each in their own way could also have predicted the outbreak of violence. Since 2005, not much has changed in the lives of the young rabble-rousers. Despite the money the government has poured into these areas to rehabilitate them, the mood is the same.

In this town of 27,000 — with its quaint center city of two-story stucco buildings and hulking high-rise apartments on the periphery — young and older men still roam the streets with nothing to do most weekdays. The jobless rate remains steady at 40%.

Young people “don't have work,” says Koissi, the coach. “That's the point.”

The City Council built a park for riding motorbikes, a favorite, if not rowdy, pastime of the young in such neighborhoods. But the police tightly control it, complains Koissi. “The police shoo the kids away, and they have nowhere else to go.”

The French government has been trying to bring renewal to these tumbledown areas, spending almost $9 billion a year on programs and construction projects. But a recent watchdog report showed that much of the money had been wasted through inefficiency and repetitive services.

There is now a new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, promising more renewal, but he is also the loathed former interior minister of the previous administration who fanned the violence in 2005 by referring to marauding youth as “scum.”

Sarkozy, who returns from China today, has made it clear that he'll side with law enforcement and the people who have lost their cars and their businesses to the unrest.

But he also reached out to the parents of the teenage accident victims, inviting them to visit the presidential Elysee Palace so he could express his condolences. They declined the invitation, and the brother of one victim has publicly accused police of inappropriately leaving the scene after the collision.

Two investigations are underway to determine who was at fault.

In the meantime, Le Texier, the senator, scoffs at Sarkozy's urban affairs minister, Fadela Amara, a Muslim who grew up in the projects and is a former Socialist who defected to join the new center-right government. Amara has been on a mission since summer to hear from the residents of the ghetto about what they think must be done and is expected to deliver a plan of action by early next year.

Le Texier says people who know the problems are disgusted by Amara's search for the best strategies: “We've been telling the government for 10 years what needs to be done here.”

The most difficult hurdles, she and others agree, are the ones money cannot easily fix. They are endemic to the culture of France's 5 million immigrants, particularly many of the second generation who are born in France but don't feel French.

And so during a night of rage they target a police station, a library: “It's a symbol,” says Le Texier, “of the republic, of the city, of the state.”

Lost dictionaries

But the hopelessness that might explain away the destruction this week does not justify the misery it brings to the lives of three little boys. At least they don't seem to think so.

On his way home from school for lunch Tuesday, Matthew Touissant, 12, and his two buddies pass by the remains of the library. They survey it soberly.

“The dictionaries were over there,” says Yazid, 11, pointing behind the teetering pile of desks.

“In the middle,” adds Michael, 11, “was where they welcomed young kids like us.”

Matthew lives nearby and came to the library to do homework but also because there was nothing at home to do.

His parents, he says, weren't so much sad as they were shocked that it was destroyed.

“Now,” he sighs, “they won't know what to do with me.”

Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau and special correspondent Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.


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