Paris on fire: poverty and exclusion blamed for gang-related rioting

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The Independent Online

Is Paris burning? From the centre of the world's most beautiful city, you would hardly know anything much was happening. The tourists still crowd into the new Louis-Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysées. Well-heeled Parisians are planning their Sunday lunch with maman or making an early getaway for a weekend in the country.

But beyond the Paris ring-road (the Boulevard Périphérique), especially to the north, east and south, there is a different world: a world of tower blocks, sink schools, 20 per cent unemployment, violent youth gangs, police brutality, and - it should be said - many thousands of people trying their best to make a living and keep their children out of trouble.

Since Thursday 27 October, it is this twilight world which has been plunged into fire and destruction. Night after night, the violence has spread, leapfrogging from one suburb to another. Gangs of youths in five or six areas each night, mostly north and east of Paris, have taken their turn to burn hundreds of cars, set fire to public buildings, or factories or warehouses, to storm buses or throw stones or shoot live bullets at the police. On Thursday night, a gang of youths invaded a bus full of passengers, flung petrol on the floor and set the vehicle alight. A disabled woman, unable to flee like other passengers, was gravely burnt.

On the same night, the contagion of violence spread to Trappes, south-west of Paris, where a bus garage was set ablaze, destroying 27 buses. In total, 519 vehicles were burnt in the area on Thursday - bringing the total to more than 2,000 in the past week.

Who are the real victims of most of these attacks - the burnt man; the owners of the incinerated cars; the kids who can no longer go to the gymnasium at Le Blanc-Mesnil, burnt to the ground on Wednesday; the people unable to go to work from Trappes yesterday because all the buses had been destroyed?

The victims are, of course, other relatively poor residents of the banlieues, the double ring of often pleasant, sometimes grim, public housing estates that surround the French capital.

Why such violence? Why such blind destruction of the painfully acquired property of equally poor neighbours? What cause in nature makes such hard hearts that would set fire to a 56-year-old handicapped man?

The first point that should be made is that these are not, in the classic sense, race riots. There are almost no mono-racial ghettoes in France. The gangs attacking the police, and their neighbours' property, have a sense of exclusion from rich, white society. But they reflect the bizarre ethnic mixture of the banlieues. Maybe 50 per cent are of Arab or African origin, and 30 per cent are black, with a sprinkling of French kids and the descendants of European immigrants. Of five youths tried for rioting in a court in Bobigny on Thursday, two were of Arab origin, and three were white, one of Italian extraction. Only one of the five was not born in France.

Despite the inflammatory rubbish written by some right-wing commentators in the French press about a "Paris intifada", this is not an Islamic insurrection or a political revolution of any kind. If you speak, as I have over several years, to kids in the youth gangs in Paris suburbs, they have no political or religious sense whatsoever. If you ask them who they hate, they say: "We are racists. We hate the kids who live in that estate over there."

The gang members - a minority but often a large minority of kids in one area - are educational failures or unemployed or from fatherless homes.

They can be charming to speak to. But their attitudes, dominated by violence, theft and contempt for women, betrays a complete breakdown of the French "republican" and educational model.

The initial cause of the unrest was the still unexplained death by electrocution of two teenage boys at Clichy-sous-Bois last Thursday. Their companions insist they were chased into a power sub-station by police and left to their fate. All sides now agree the boys had done nothing wrong. The government insists that there was no police chase, but a criminal investigation has been - belatedly - opened.

The riots - even if they spread to the suburbs of other cities - will burn themselves out in a few days, just as they have before. There is already a backlash against the rioters.

That is not to minimise what has been going on - far from it.

The wrong lessons will probably be learnt once again. The right will blame the Islamist-influenced West-haters. The left will blame the police.

And next time, the kids in the gangs might forget their feuds and decide to take out their hatred on Paris itself.

Is Paris burning? Not yet.

Diary of violence

* THURSDAY 27 OCTOBER

Two African teenagers, aged 15 and 17, die in electricity sub-station in Clichy-sous-Bois, and a third is seriously burned after police investigate a break-in. Rampaging youths attack firemen called to help.

* FRIDAY 28 OCTOBER

16 people hurt as youths set fire to 40 cars in Clichy-sous-Bois, where a shot is fired at police.

* SATURDAY 29 OCTOBER

14 people detained in Clichy-sous-Bois amid more rioting. Local residents hold peaceful march.

* SUNDAY 30 OCTOBER

Police announce detention of 22 people and say Clichy-sous-Bois is "under control."

* MONDAY 31 OCTOBER

Six police hurt after youths fire tear gas into a mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois.

* TUESDAY 1 NOVEMBER

Riots spread to three other Paris suburbs, where 19 people are detained. Prime Minister Dominque Villepin intervenes for first time to call for calm.

* TUESDAY 1 NOVEMBER

Riots spread to nine Paris suburbs where 69 cars set on fire and 34 people arrested.

* THURSDAY 3 NOVEMBER

Hundreds of extra police deployed as nine Paris suburbs ablaze again.

* FRIDAY 4 NOVEMBER

Rioting spreads outside Paris for first time, as youths set fire to cars in Dijon, Rouen and the Marseille region. 520 cars torched in Paris suburbs.

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