Fortress Paris: The capital is in lockdown after 16 nights of violence

Gatherings 'of a nature that could provoke or encourage disorder' are banned. The city is paralysed. Raymond Whitaker reports
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The Independent Online

Paris was under lockdown last night, with some 3,000 police deployed against threats that the riots and arson which have shaken France for 16 nights would spread to the heart of the capital.

All gatherings of "a nature that could provoke or encourage disorder" were banned for 22 hours, until 7am British time today, after internet and text messages called for people to come into the centre of Paris and carry out "violent actions".

Routes into the capital were under surveillance, with several hundred police cadets brought in to reinforce the official presence on the streets. Another potential flashpoint was a football friendly between France and Germany at the Stade de France, on the volatile fringe of Paris.

Several hours after nightfall, no trouble had been reported in Paris, but violence broke out early yesterday evening in the south-eastern city of Lyon, with police firing tear gas to disperse stone-throwing youths at the city's historic Place Bellecour. It was the first time in more than two weeks of unrest that youths and police clashed in a major French city centre.

Security was stepped up sharply from Friday, a national holiday to mark Armistice Day. Truckloads of CRS, the national riot police, kept guard over President Jacques Chirac as he laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The anger and alienation felt in the deprived areas surrounding the capital was highlighted in an interview posted on the internet with two black youths from Grigny.

"Do you think that if there's a war in France, we're going to fight beside the people who persecute us every day of our lives?" one said. "In the eyes of Chirac I'm not a French citizen, so why should I fight for the homeland?"

France's police chief, Michel Gaudin, described the overnight situation in Grigny and the rest of the Ile de France, the Paris region, as "almost normal". But that still meant that some 100 cars were set ablaze on Friday night; in France as a whole more than 500 vehicles were burnt.

The most ominous incident was in the southern town of Carpentras, where two petrol bombs were thrown at a mosque. The motives of those behind this attack were not clear.

The prospect of the unrest acquiring sectarian overtones ­ some far-left leafleters have tried to label the eruption of violence an "intifada" ­ brought quick condemnation and demands for an immediate investigation from President Chirac and the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin.

But despite the destruction across France since 27 October ­ with countless vehicles torched, as well as schools, nurseries and other public facilities, curfews in half a dozen areas and more than 2,400 arrests ­ the elite did not appear to fully appreciate the depth of fury amongst the less privileged, until the centre of Paris itself was threatened. The jittery reaction to that only emphasised the gulf in understanding that remains between ruling circles and the rest.

President Chirac said virtually nothing about the riots until last week, when he finally acknowledged "undeniable problems" in poor areas.

"Whatever our origins, we are all the children of the Republic, and we can all expect the same rights," he said. His tonemerely incenses the inhabitants of the euphemistically titledquartiers difficiles.

The patrician Prime Minister remained equally aloof, leaving the running to his combative rival for the presidency in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy. The rioters saw the Interior Minister's unrepentant talk of "cleaning out" the racaille (scum) as a provocation but M. Sarkozy, unlike his colleagues, at least went on to the streets of the banlieues. He has also conceded that France might have to institute "affirmative action" for those of Arab and African descent, and has promised thousands of scholarships to boost their chances.

M. Sarkozy's words were dismissed, however, by Hamid Senni, 30, who grew up in social housing near Lyons. "It's just a lie," he said. " What's holding us back is discrimination, pure and simple." M. Senni has every reason to believe that. As the child of poor Algerian immigrants, he gained an MBA, only to find that no French company would even give him an interview. Finally he applied to employers in Britain. "Metal Box immediately asked me to come over, business class. I felt like Cinderella," he said.

After three years in Sweden, working for Ericsson, M. Senni's mother tried to persuade him to return to France, arguing that with international experience he might have better luck. "I spent five months trying, but again ­ nothing," he said. "So I went back to Britain, and got interviews straight away with Shell, BP, Sony and Philip Morris."

He joined BP but says that when they wanted to send him to France, the French division only offered a junior post at two-thirds of his previous salary. He quit and set up his own consulting company, based in London. That also took much less time than it would in France, where bureaucracy, high taxation and powerful trade unions are blamed for restricting the kind of job creation that might benefit banlieue-dwellers.

"The kids in those areas see people like me struggling to get a job and say, 'What's the point of going to school?'" said M. Senni, who was back in Paris, visiting a relative. "They go for quick money from drugs and theft. It's easy, fast, and cool. In London people have been asking me about the violence. Of course I condemn it, but I say I would rather see burning cars than suicide bombings. Next time, though, it could be Kalashnikovs."

The trouble began after two youths of African and Arab origin were killed at an electricity sub-station while hiding from the police in Clichy-sous-Bois, north-east of central Paris.

It takes more than an hour to get there by train and bus, emphasising the sense of isolation felt in such banlieues, although at first glance it is not obviously deprived.

Modern schools and colleges are surrounded by leafy parkland, and the sub-station where the two boys died is at the end of a cul-de-sac bordered by suburban villas. But up the hill are neglected tower blocks, with patches of blackened tarmac where burnt-out cars have been removed.

"I am lucky, I have a job," said Hassan Bentahar, 28. "Things are not too bad for me. We get on with our neighbours, even though most of them have no work. The only problem is the police who provoke us all the time. They bring dogs. They show us no respect."

M. Sarkozy has taken some action to address such complaints. A policeman accused of beating up a youth during the disturbances has been arrested and seven others who allegedly took part or simply watched are under investigation. The Interior Minister has also ordered police to address people in the banlieues with the formal "vous" rather than "tu ". But Alfonse Matou, born in Congo, blamed M. Sarkozy for the trouble."We had just managed to calm things down here when he called us 'scum'," he said. "That's what made it explode, not just here but all over France."

At themairie (town hall), a spokesman, Sébastien Bayette, said patrols by local residents had helped to bring the situation under control. "All the television crews have gone now," he said. "Before this nobody in France had even heard of Clichy-sous-Bois, let alone the rest of the world." For the rioters, however, that may have been the point. The nation is now discussing their problems, but the trouble may not die down entirely until they see some solutions.