November 5, 2005
Immigrant Rioting Flares in France for Ninth Night

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France, Nov. 4 - France's worst urban violence in a decade exploded for a ninth night on Friday as bands of youths roamed the immigrant-heavy, working-class suburbs of Paris, setting fire to dozens of cars and buildings as the government struggled over the violence and the underlying frustrations fueling it.

The unrest, which has also spread to other parts of France with large North African and Arab populations, prompted the American and Russian governments to warn citizens visiting Paris to avoid its poor, outlying neighborhoods. France reduced train service to Charles de Gaulle Airport after two trains became targets of rioters earlier in the week.

A handicapped woman riding a bus in the Sevran suburb suffered burns over 20 percent of her body Thursday night after two youths doused the inside of the bus with a flammable liquid and set it on fire. Youths have also burned cars in Dijon, in the east, and in Marseille, in the south.

The violence has isolated the country's tough-talking, anticrime interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom some people blame for having worsened the situation with his blunt statements about "cleaning out" the "thugs" from those neighborhoods.

France has been grappling for years with growing unrest among its second- and third-generation immigrants, mostly North African Arabs, who have faced decades of high unemployment and marginalization. Critics say Mr. Sarkozy's confrontational approach has polarized the communities and the government.

"It's a game that has been started between the youth and Sarkozy," said a French-Algerian man wearing Chanel sunglasses outside Aulnay's mosque, in a converted warehouse. He would give his name only as Nabil. "Until he quits," he said, "it's not going to get better."

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin met Friday afternoon with more than a dozen youths from troubled neighborhoods at his palatial offices in central Paris, hoping to find a solution to the unrest. He has promised to put in place an "action plan" before the end of the month to improve conditions in the country's poor neighborhoods.

France's foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, warned Thursday that France risked losing the integration battle in immigrant neighborhoods to radicalization of religious-based movements (diplomatic code for Islamic extremism).

For now, the violence seems to have been the work of unfocused teenagers and young adults without a clear political agenda.

"We see among the rioters kids of 13 to 15, who are swept along, who are encouraged to take all the risks, and the others, the ringleaders, who are used to creating trouble - they terrorize everyone, and don't want to stop," said Franck Cannarozzo, a deputy mayor of Aulnay. "Rather than playing on their Playstations, they attack the police."

The rioting began last week in Clichy-sous-Bois after two teenagers were electrocuted when they hid in an electrical substation from the police. Local youths, who believed the police had chased the boys into the enclosure, took to the streets, setting cars on fire in protest.

This came shortly after Mr. Sarkozy's populist anticrime campaign gathered speed when he declared a "war without mercy" on violence in the working-class suburbs, which were built up during the postwar period to move workers out of the city center and closer to the industrial zones that employed them.

Over the succeeding decades, North African and sub-Saharan immigrants replaced the working-class French who initially populated the neighborhoods. But jobs have dried up as the economy slowed - unemployment in some of the zones is as high as 30 percent - and the suburbs have become the French equivalent of America's inner cities.

While labor immigration tightened in the 1980's, illegal immigration and asylum seekers have kept many of the neighborhoods growing. In 2003, France became the world's leading destination for asylum seekers, surpassing the United States.

Immigration analysts say the current segregation is precursor to an inevitable reshaping of European societies forced to reopen their borders to increase the tax rolls and balance their aging, shrinking populations with immigrants.

Demographic pressures mean North African and sub-Saharan Africans will probably be at the forefront. By many estimates a majority of the 300 million Muslims already living along the Mediterranean's southern rim are under age 20.

Many in those neighborhoods say that they are being stigmatized by the interior minister's campaign and that the increased police presence results in harassment. Even before the deaths that set off the unrest last week, Mr. Sarkozy was pelted with stones and bottles during a highly publicized visit to the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil, where he had gone to outline a new plan to fight crime.

But Mr. Sarkozy has refused to back down, calling for "firmness and justice" in the face of the violence.

His stance has worsened a split in the governing Union for a Popular Majority party between his supporters and those of Mr. Villepin. Both men are vying to become the party's presidential candidate in 2007.

The opposition Socialists, deeply divided since earlier this year over a failed effort to ratify a European constitution, have been quick to capitalize on the unrest, accusing the governing party of neglecting the plight of the disenfranchised French-Arab and French-African youth.
On Thursday, the Interior Ministry released a report on the deaths that touched off the newest rioting, asserting that a third boy who survived the incident had said he and his friends were not being chased and were aware of the danger when they entered the substation enclosure. The report suggested that the boys were hiding from the police because one of those who died had a record of armed robbery and the other was part of a group that had broken into a construction site that evening.

But those points have been lost amid the ensuing violence.

"It's the police who are provoking us," said a bearded man in a white cap and North African robe in Aulnay who would give his name only as Mohamed. "They don't like foreigners."

He said he had moved to France from Algeria in 1971 and lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. All four of his children were born in France, and though he is unemployed, they have all found jobs.

"They say integrate, but I don't understand: I'm already French, what more do they want?" he said. "They want me to drink alcohol?"

Though France has a policy of officially ignoring ethnic differences in favor of French identity, its people have been slow to open their arms to newcomers who are told that they should enjoy the same rights.

"On paper we're all the same, but if your name is Mohamed, even with a good education, you can only find a job as a porter at the airport," said Kader, 23, who works at the airport. He complained that the immigrant suburbs had been neglected by the current government.

While the vast majority of the young people behind the nightly attacks are Muslim, experts and residents warned against seeing the violence through the prism of religion. The cultural divide between these second- and third-generation immigrants and the native French is deeper because they come from Muslim families, but to date the violence has had nothing to do with Islam.

But Islamic radicals recruit in France's troubled neighborhoods, and there is clearly a risk of deepening alienation and anger that could breed more extremism.

Manuel Valls, the mayor of Évry, where dozens of cars have been set afire, said the spreading unrest was more a game of copycats than coordinated action as young people vie to make the evening news. "It's a kind of hit parade by the neighborhoods," he said.

But Mr. Valls said the deeper symptoms of the neighborhoods must be addressed. "Each crisis is bigger, harsher and deeper, more revealing of the failure of our integration model," he said.

Ariane Bernard contributed reporting for this article.