Week of violence prompts French soul-searching
PARIS, Nov 4 (AFP) - What is behind the Paris riots? Organised gangs of criminals -- even Islamic radicals -- out to undermine the state, or a failure by successive governments to give millions of immigrants a chance in life?
Rampages that have gripped the poorer immigrant-populated outskirts of Paris since October 27, spreading for the first time Thursday night to other parts of the country, have left many in the country struggling for an explanation.
The rioters are young, overwhelmingly Muslim men, second-generation immigrants from France’s former Arab and African colonies, who claim they are protesting economic misery, racial discrimination and provocative policing.
This argument has been widely echoed in the press, by Muslim and community representatives and by the left-wing opposition, which accuses the centre-right government of slashing budgets for social work in these communities.
Hardline new law-and-order policies implemented by interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy have also been widely accused of fuelling anger in the high-rise, mainly immigrant estates where the trouble has spread.
Sociologist Michel Wierviorka, speaking in Le Parisien newspaper, charged that Sarkozy had “stigmatised entire communities” by arguing that crime-ridden areas should be “cleaned with a power-hose”.
But the interior minister — while recognising more must be done to haul the suburbs out of poverty and exclusion — insisted on Thursday the violence was being orchestrated by unknown ringleaders.
Police union leader Bruno Beschizza described the riots as “urban terrorism”, led by small knots of criminals as well as Islamic radicals.
“This is a form of urban terrorism led by a minority of kingpins, who have a financial interest, such as drug trafficking, or an ideological one, such as Islamic radicals who have been seen by our colleagues.”
These ringleaders were a “tiny minority”, the head of the Synergie union said on Friday, adding his view was backed by a number of social workers and lawmakers in the worst-hit Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris.
The role — if any — of Islam in the recent upsurge in violence, which has affected mainly Muslim neighbourhoods, is a highly sensitive issue in France.
Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist, has warned against lumping together “a religion, Islam”, with “a handful of extremists” and with “criminal networks”.
In many cases Muslim community leaders have been acting as mediators between youths and the authorities, going door-to-door to talk to the families of young rioters, or stepping in at night to stop the clashes.
Most observers searching for the root causes of the riots accuse successive governments of turning a blind eye as immigrant ghettos, synonymous with unemployment and social deprivation, swelled outside France’s big cities.
Today, some 750 areas are classed as ‘Sensitive Urban Zones’ (ZUS), where unemployment hovers at 20 percent — twice the national average — and average incomes are 60 percent of the national average, government statistics show.
Among young men between 15 and 25, unemployment reaches 36 percent — and even higher if only young Arab men are counted.
Youth violence — with car-burnings a regular feature — has been steadily building in these dilapidated estates, with major outbreaks of rioting around once a year and countless minor incidents which go unreported.
Sociologist Wieviorka said the riots stemmed from years of “broken promises” by the French state, and called into question the country’s entire model for integrating newcomers into French society.
The French model, secular and republican, insists that all citizens are equal before the state, but has been accused of leaving cultural minorities without a voice, notably France’s estimated five million Muslims.
“(These riots) demonstrate the failure of the so-called Republican model for social integration. We need to find something new, some combination of social solidarity and economic realism,” Wieviorka said.
Le Figaro newspaper, in an editorial, said the run-down estates had “rotted” away to become “prisons” for the estimated five-million people who live there.
For the newspaper, the main culprit was French immigration policy since the 1970s, which had allowed family reunification but failed to provide sufficient mechanisms to integrate newcomers into society.
Subject: French news