Murder on the Champs Elysées as street gangs invade the city

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Zakaria Babamou, a young man with a warm smile, died - stabbed in the back, beaten over the head with an iron bar - a few feet from the garden wall of President Jacques Chirac's residence. Precisely why 18-year-old Mr Babamou died on Saturday night at the Rond Point des Champs Elysées, just off the most renowned tourist avenue in the world, remains a mystery.

Zakaria Babamou, a young man with a warm smile, died - stabbed in the back, beaten over the head with an iron bar - a few feet from the garden wall of President Jacques Chirac's residence. Precisely why 18-year-old Mr Babamou died on Saturday night at the Rond Point des Champs Elysées, just off the most renowned tourist avenue in the world, remains a mystery.

One group of young men from a poor outer suburb west of Paris attacked another group of young men, just like themselves, who came from another poor suburb a couple of miles away. There was a scuffle in the forest of white Christmas trees at the mid-way point of the self-proclaimed "most beautiful avenue" in the world.

Mr Babamou, a pizza delivery man from Carrières-sous-Poissy, 20 miles west of Paris, died of a massive haemorrhage half an hour later.

A fight over a disrespectful look? An argument over a mobile phone? An insult? A pre-arranged face-off between suburban gangs? The death of Mr Babamou, who had no record of violence, came on the same night as a shooting outside a high-class strip club, 200 yards away. The two incidents have drawn attention to what police say is a sharp rise in tension and barely-suppressed violence on the Champs Elysées on Friday and, especially, Saturday nights. Gangs of youths from the poor suburbs are coming into the capital to roam along the Champs Elysées and, increasingly, to confront one another.

Contrary to the impression sometimes given, these are not "Arab" gangs or "black" gangs, seeking some kind of revenge on mainstream "white" society.

They are usually multi-racial, reflecting the racial mosaic of the suburbs - kids of Arab origin but also blacks, Eastern Europeans, Turks and ethnically French youths. The object of their hatred is the equally varied gangs from other suburbs or other housing estates.

Fights between the gangs - loose groups of boys, rather than organised gangs in the American sense - are common in the suburbs. In recent months, the battleground has shifted to Paris proper.

Officially, the police say that the Champs Elysées is among the safest places in the French capital. The problems with gang violence on the avenue have been solved by adopting a policy of "zero tolerance", Paris police headquarters insists.

Other sources, including the police unions, dispute this claim. One of the favourite haunts of the youths, they say, is the leafy, open area of the Champs Elysées, between the bright lights of the western part of the avenue and the Place de la Concorde.

"Gangs of youths from the suburbs are coming in more and more often," said a spokesman for the SGP-FO police union.

On Saturday night, Mr Babamou was with a group of youths, including his brother. There was a fight, for reasons which are still unclear, with a larger gang from Sartrouville, a town a few miles from where Mr Babamou lived with his parents, brother and two sisters.

Amar, an Algerian-born social worker who works with youths in a similar suburb east of Paris, said: "These kids have a tribal instinct. Racially, within the group, no distinctions are made, but they will always say to you: 'We are racists. We hate the kids from the next estate.' If you look at the other kids, they are just the same racial mix."

A report recently criticised France's failure to absorb immigrants into mainstream society. Although the criticism is justified, France has pursued a policy of refusing to allow the development of the kind of mono-racial ghettoes seen in the inner cities in Britain and the US. Hence the multi-racial character of the mutually-hating gangs. Whether this is a cause for hope is another question.

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