Several hundred people turned out in the Belleville district of north- eastern Paris yesterday evening to demonstrate against what they say is police racism. Such a demonstration would be nothing unusual in the rundown Sixties suburbs outside the ring road around the capital; nor would the sort of incident - usually a request for identity papers - that gives rise to them.
But the episode that provoked this demonstration was unusual on two counts: it took place inside the city, and the charges of racism came not from the usual complainants, Turks or North African Arabs, but from Sephardic Jews, relatively recent immigrants, mainly from Tunisia. And although accounts of events in Belleville last Friday vary widely, there is agreement on one thing: Arabs and Jews were ranged side by side against the Paris police.
Belleville is an old, picturesque quarter of Paris, one of the few areas close to the centre that has not been gentrified. With its small pastel houses and quiet narrow streets, it is like Montmartre used to be. It has been sought out as a last refuge of Bohemia by writers and artists looking for ''real life''. It has a large student and young population, and first-generation immigrants: Jews and Arabs from the Maghreb, Turks, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians.
According to the police, the level of street crime is no worse than anywhere else in Paris. Any racial tension tends to be between North Africans and Orientals, not between Jews and Arabs or between any of these groups and the police.
Last Friday, though, for reasons not fully explained, a special police unit went to Belleville and started checking identity papers. One of those asked for his documents was a youth of 16, ferreting about under the bonnet of a car. Either he refused, or did not have his papers; the police made to take him away.
It is alleged that one of the policemen then called the youth ''a dirty Jew'', and subjected his father - who had run over from the pre- Sabbath market near by - to the same treatment. At that, it is said, market stall-holders (mostly Jews), shoppers and bystanders (mostly Arabs), came to the support of the youth, and surrounded the police and their car.
The police called for help, and a busload of reinforcements arrived. A full-scale riot ensued - 80 police against 300 or so locals - in which three people were slightly injured.
The police say they spotted known agitators in the crowd, who instigated the violence. By all accounts, quiet returned as soon as the police left, and the police have announced an inquiry. Any evidence of racism, they say, will be punished.
Nevertheless the incident has shocked Paris because it seemed to prove that police racism is still a problem and that anti-police feeling is far closer to the surface than the authorities thought.