Les Cites: where the riots come from

8th November 2005, Comments 0 comments

The dilapidated high-rise estates known collectively as Les Cités were built in the booming 1960s to house a newly urbanized workforce. But today, they are synonymous with unemployment and social deprivation and now they are world-famous as the source of the Paris riots of 2005. Hugh Schofield, Laurence Boutreux and Emma Charlton report.

Not much like what most people imagine when they think of Paris

Apartment block complexes with evocative names like the 'Quarter of the Pointed Oak' and 'Quarter of the Pyramids', they were once praised as a daring concept in town design -- creating self-sufficient communities with easy access to shops and other amenities.

But by the late 1980s, when the first of France's suburban rioting broke out, it was clear that they were the focus of the country's most pressing social ills.

Intended originally to house low-income families from all ethnic origins -- ex-farmers from the emptying countryside as well as workers from the former north African colonies -- the worst estates became immigrant ghettoes, as those who had made money moved out.

*sidebar1*Invariably situated in the outskirts or 'banlieues' of France's major cities, the estates were far from the gaze of politicians and tourists -- which meant that the growing alienation of young people there passed unnoticed for many years.

The violence that has grabbed international headlines over the last nearly two weeks has been unusual for its duration -- but the ritual of car-burning and clashing with police and fire services is well-established.

For some 15 years there have been major outbreaks of rioting around Paris and other cities at a rate of about one a year -- often sparked as now by rumours surrounding the deaths of local youths. In addition there are countless minor incidents that go unreported.

For Miloud, 39, who runs a local fruit and vegetable market stall, "They should arrest the architect who created all this. He has created ghettos, these places are prisons."

"People living packed together like this, it is bound to create tensions."

One young man described the town as "the most rotten, the poorest in the region" with "no train station, no swimming pool, no cinema -- nothing worthwhile".

Recognising the architectural failure of the complexes, the French government has undertaken a programme of gradual replacement -- with tower-blocks dynamited and low-cost houses being built instead. Some 30,000 apartment homes are to be destroyed under the programme by 2008.

*quote1*Home to anger

But while the long-term plan waits to be implemented, the youth who live here act out their angst and try to dispel their boredom.

Outside a row of dilapidated tower blocks, burnt out cars dotted here and there, six young men who fought street battles against the police here this week say they plan to continue defying them.

"We have found our thrills: playing with riot police in the evening," one 22-year-old told AFP, under cover of anonymity.

"As long as the police come and provoke us in the evening, we'll bring out the Molotov cocktails, stones, pétanque balls, planks," he said.

More than 1,400 vehicles were torched in France in one night this week

Around him, half a dozen youths nodded in agreement.

"In the day we sleep, go see our girlfriends, play video games... And in the evening we have a good time: at 9pm we go and fight the police," said one.

"It's like being in Matrix," the science-fiction film, he said, adding that he liked to see the "riot police in a panic, hiding behind their shields."

Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor, high-immigration suburb northeast of Paris, was the epicentre of a week-long surge of violence in the Paris suburbs -- set off on Thursday by the deaths by electrocution of two local youths, who thought they were being chased by police.

'We are nothing in this world'

Anger at the boys' deaths has combined with growing resentment over hardline new law-and-order policies put forward by interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Before now, the police could not come into the neighbourhood. Now, they catch you, take you away, insult you about your origins -- they can do anything they like," said one of the group of young men.

Residents of the tower blocks where nightly battles have taken place are torn between anger at the authorities -- whom many accuse of provoking the violence -- and frustration with the rioters.

At a nearby market stall, Mouloud, 70, said he was deeply shocked by the interior minister's comments last month, when he vowed to "clean up" the "rabble" in the suburbs, using a water-cannon.

*quote2*"For Sarkozy, people are dirt," he charged. "All the young immigrants heard that and now they are getting into trouble."

Salih Sabrer, 60, nodded in agreement. "That word was a shame for France. A minister should not be saying that kind of thing."

Walking past, Aissatou Silla, 18, said she thought the riots were justified, as a response both to the boys' deaths and the mosque incident, but "useless" all the same.

"This is the wrong way to vent their anger. They can't change anything this way," said the young woman, born to a Senegalese father and French mother.

She says the neighbourhood is usually quiet -- "the young people here all get on well" -- but that there are serious tensions between local youths and the police.

"They get beaten up for nothing, accused of 'rebelling' against the police. Because we're young and from the tower blocks, they take advantage. They spot a group of black or Arab kids and they pick them up."

Born to immigrant families from Senegal and Morocco, two of the group of young men who joined the riots have regular jobs, while the four others say they live "pretty well" from dealing cannabis.

Tonight, Karim, 18, said he intended to fight the police again.

"I am going to get them back for all the times I was hauled in to the police station for nothing," said the young man, one of a family of six children whose father, a former cleaner, is unemployed.

He admits that he has dabbled in petty crime, but says he was often arrested for no reason, accused of talking back to police.

"We are against the state because the state doesn't want us. We are nothing in this world."

For more on ZUS, see the website for L'observatoire National des Zones Urbaines Sensibles

November 2005

Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: French news

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