La Haine: Schools, synagogues and hundreds of cars burn. It's Paris 2005

The 1996 hit film showed a French capital in flames as its underclass rioted. That was fiction. This time it's for real. Hugh Schofield reports from the streets of a suburb its inhabitants now call Baghdad-sur-Seine
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The Independent Online

At Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the worst-affected towns in the eastern Paris suburbs, a group of five or six adolescents in baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts lounged last week in the parking lot of the notorious estate known as the City of the 3,000.

Across the dual carriageway that fronts the grim complex, a Renault garage lay in black cinders. Police and passers-by took photographs with their mobile phones. Elsewhere in the town, which is in most parts a safe and genteel area not far from Charles de Gaulle airport, burnt-out cars littered the pavement. A faint smell mixing tear gas and smoke still lingered in the air.

Among Abdelkarim and his friends, no one bothered to deny that they were in the thick of it the night before. "In the olden days this used to be a huge forest. It was called the Forêt de Bondy. In those days there used to be highwaymen who cut the throats of the people in the carriages when they came through. That's what we are - like pirates," laughed Abdelkarim, 20.

His story was of poverty, discrimination, dreams of his ancestral homeland of Morocco - and also of anti-Semitism, regular consumption of hashish and a swaggering satisfaction with his record of car theft, prison and violence. "Look around you - there is nothing here. We live four to a room. Our parents go to work like zombies. But we have nothing. Even the jobs around here go to people from elsewhere. This parking lot is like our living room," he said.

The surroundings are indeed grim. The City of the 3,000 consists of a series of long low-rise buildings made of the cheapest 1970s materials and painted an unsavoury off-white. Patches of scrubby grass are covered in rubbish and upturned wheelie bins.

"The police know us all by name. But when they come they still beat down the door and order our parents to lie on the ground. And when they ask where we are from, we give our addresses, but they say: 'You're not from here. You're from Africa,'" he said.

Though he modestly declined the appellation, Abdelkarim is the local "caid" - the Arabic word means leader - and he happily boasted of the €2,000 which he makes from each car stolen. "You want prostitutes, DVD players, jewellery? I can get anything you want," he said.

One of his friends, Karim, aged 15, pulled back his sleeves to reveal gold bracelets and then opened his shirt to show a gold chain. Both nicked, he winked. Another boy held a mobile phone. "Come and look," he gestured, laughing. It was a short film of a Chechen guerrilla cutting off the head of a Russian soldier.

These are the people who since 27 October have had the French government running scared. Their grievances - racism, poverty, lack of jobs - have changed little since the first disturbances in the banlieues broke out more than 15 years ago, later portrayed in the 1996 film La Haine (Hatred).

But where before protesters demanded financial aid and change within the system, many of today's rioters seem motivated more by a nihilistic rejection of all that surrounds them. "I hate France, and the French hate us," said Abdelkarim. "The wicked get punished. See what happened after the Americans made war on Iraq? Allah sent the hurricane. We are getting our revenge."

For President Jacques Chirac - and his uneasy cabinet tandem of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy - this stark aggression is proof of the colossal failure of past policies to integrate France's five million-strong Arab minority. Successive governments have invoked the mantra of republican equality to block special measures to favour immigrants, arguing that the country's system of integration would work in time.

But in practice Arabs continue to suffer from widespread discrimination in employment and housing. Unofficial statistics - there are no official ones - show that a hugely disproportionate number of young Arab males are in prison or out of work. Alienation has been fed by the almost total absence of Muslim or African leaders in politics and the media. While Britain has dozens of MPs and other public figures of African or Asian origin, France has virtually none.

Meanwhile, there is the constant affront of being obliged to live in the bleak out-of-town estates that have become synonymous with deprivation and violence. Even before this latest wave of rioting, some 28,000 cars were burnt in small-scale riots in France in the first 10 months of the year. "From my window I can see the Eiffel Tower," said Abdelkarim. "But Paris is another world. This is Baghdad."

Britain has had a different experience of immigration. Communities have been encouraged to maintain their identities - anathema in France - and moved into the inner parts of the main towns and cities. There is poverty, but employment. In Birmingham two weeks ago the riots were between two groups competing for space. In France the target is different: wealth, authority, the nation.

Benyahya Makhlouf, a 53-year-old taxi driver who emigrated from Algeria 20 years ago, said that he sympathises with the protesters. "They packed them into these estates and it was like living in a cage. Of course they were going to explode," he said. "The children just give up."

But Mr Makhlouf also supported the hardline policing ideas of Mr Sarkozy. "How am I supposed to inculcate the work ethic in my son, when his friends have Nikes given to them by their drug-dealer fathers? At least Sarkozy wants to restore order."

The name evokes different emotions among the rioters. "Ever since Sarko came into the government, life has been merde," said Kamel, 16. "He treats us like dogs - well, we'll show him how dogs can react." On this point, he and the outspoken minister, who talks of "cleaning out" the "racaille" (riff-raff), are speaking the same language. He sees the riots as a clear attempt by the caids to take back control, and is determined to stop them.


From the storming of the Bastille, the image of Paris has been inseparable from that of revolution. Sanctified in the words of the 'Marseillaise', this reverence for the revolutionary spirit has lent a degree of legitimacy to violent protests.

1789 Mother of revolutions. The Paris mob - the sans-culottes of legend - overthrow the monarchy. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are guillotined

1830 The Bourbons, restored after Napoleon's defeat in 1815, are driven out as Paris rises up, sending Charles X into exile

1848 Amid unrest across Europe, a small riot in Paris causes the constitutional monarch Louis Philippe to flee

1871 After France's defeat by Prussia on the battlefield, riots break out again in Paris, giving birth to the revolutionary but short-lived Paris Commune

1968 Students pull up the Latin Quarter's cobblestones in revolt against Charles de Gaulle's rule. Workers go on strike too, weakening the government fatally