No intifada, no cause, just poor kids defending their territory

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The Independent Online

Talk of an intifada is absurdly misleading. Firstly, the rioters are far from being all Muslim (although more than half are from Islamic backgrounds). Second, they have no sense of political or religious identity and no political demands. Their allegiance is to their quartier and their gang. Their main demand, so far as can be established, is to be left alone by police and the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sark-ozy, to continue with their life of low-level violence and drugs trading. The wider significance is therefore not politico-religious but a warning of what happens if problems of deprivation and violence are allowed to fester.

Who are the rioters? How valid are their grievances?

Judging by the youths who have been arrested, and by comments by social workers and "big brothers" - older, more responsible young people - the rioters are almost exclusively kids involved in permanent gang violence, theft and drug dealing.

They are mostly aged 17-22 with some as young as 10. Depending on the district, maybe half of the rioters may be second or third generation. French-born young people of Arab descent. Maybe 30 or 40 per cent are black, often from families which have migrated to France more recently, legally or illegally. The remainder are local French youngsters or from eastern or southern European immigrant families.

Their immediate grievance is a threat by M. Sarkozy to "clean out" the suburban gangs as "scum". Many residents, of all races, in the banlieus would agree with M. Sarkozy's sentiments, but not his inflammatory language.

Such an approach fails to grapple with the question of how these kids came to be so viciously asocial in the first place. They tend to be from troubled or broken homes or to be willing educational failures in the often chaotic school system of the poor suburbs.

Are they as well organised as M. Sarkozy suggests?

M. Sarkozy has spoken darkly of organisation of the riots by drugs overlords or Islamist radicals. His own senior police officers, and social workers dismiss this as luridly unrealistic. The gangs from different areas detest, and fight, one another. But there is evidence of an organised, and tactical, approach in each district, with leaders directing groups by texts.

How dangerous is it to travel to Paris?

The burning of 32 cars in Paris on Saturday night was a disturbing development. If the suburban rioters were to invade Paris en masse, the potential for bloodshed is obvious. Police believe this is unlikely. The gangs like to operate on their own turf or invade the territory of nearby gangs. They feel too exposed in Paris. That, at least, is the theory.

Has the government made things worse? What could authorities have done?

The biggest mistake was M. Sarkozy's threatening language, which was taken by the gangs as a challenge. Once two or three districts had had their night in the firelight, and on the news, every other quartier wanted to prove it could be just as violent. Now it is the turn of marginalised kids in suburban towns to have a go.

M. Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin seemed to use the crisis as another theatre for their personal joust before the 2007 presidential election. A more considered and apologetic approach after the initial two deaths may have calmed tempers.

What should be done to stop this happening again?

M. de Villepin will announce next week a programme of infastructure investment and job-creation schemes in 750 poor quartiers. This will be a start. It would also help to end the undeclared colour bar in French society which keeps brown and black faces off mainstream television, out of politics and even some public sector jobs. How many black and brown railwaymen are there in France? Not many. The key problem, however, is the failure of schools to grapple with the descent of a larger section of suburban kids, generation by generation, into asocial violence and nihilism. Union influence means the youngest and least experienced teachers often end up in the toughest class-rooms.

When and how will the riots end?

In tears or in rain. It is a miracle no one has died since the first two boys. A tragedy might bring the kids to their senses. Or it might not. Police, meanwhile, have been praying for a downpour, which has usually ended outbreaks in the past. The forecast for this week is fine and dry all over France.