With curfews in force and riots waning, has France finally turned the corner?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Eight police officers were suspended after two of them beat up a youth they had arrested in a suburb north of Paris. The youth, who suffered head and foot injuries, was arrested in La Courneuve on Monday.

The unrest appears to be on the wane after the government declared a state of emergency, including curfews, to quell almost two weeks of clashes between police and rioters on the suburban estates.

Evreux is one of the handful of communities across France to have taken advantage of the emergency laws to impose a curfew, confining a quarter of its population to their homes from 10pm to 5am under pain of €3,500 (£2,300) fine.

It is a measure which seems improbably draconian in a place where ducks paddle in a town-centre trout stream and advertisements publicise this week's classical music concerts. But looming over the bowl-like plain in which the town nestles is La Madeleine - a sprawling network of apartment blocks and social housing projects forming Evreux's banlieue, home to 12,500 people, 3,500 of them unemployed.

Shortly after 11pm on Saturday night, the riots that had raged in the grimmer suburbs of Paris, some 60 miles away, reached Evreux in spectacular fashion as the youths of La Madeleine, predominantly of north and west African origin, ran amok.

By the next morning more than 30 cars and half of a shopping centre had been torched. Dozens of windows were smashed and the police station had been targeted. Two police officers were seriously injured. One had her jaw broken when she was struck with a petanque ball - normally used for a sedate game of boules.

The outbreak of violence in this town of 50,000 left the population with the uncomfortable reality of being named in news reports alongside more obvious trouble spots from Toulouse to Lille to the Paris suburbs.

The inhabitants of La Madeleine, where unemployment runs at 28 per cent and 40 per cent of the largely immigrant population are under 20, insisted the authorities should not have been too surprised that Evreux was added to the list of riot-torn towns.

From his butcher's shop close to the gutted remains of a pharmacy and a salon, Algerian-born Benya Amah, 50, whose two sons are French citizens, said: "The kids here think there is no chance of them getting out of the banlieue.

"The riot was terrible. I came to make sure my shop was all right but it was raining rocks. The firemen could not even get near to put out the fires. I don't agree with the way they reacted and saying there are no jobs is just an excuse. But the real problem is the kids don't feel they belong, neither French nor Arab. That is difficult, especially when you live in such a 'French' town as this."

The apparent division between old Evreux and its troublesome 1960s suburb has been underscored by the traffic barriers controlling access in and out of La Madeleine.

In the tower blocks, posters were pinned up outlining the terms of le couvre-feu, the curfew imposed by the town's senior government official. Until 21 November, anyone found on the streets after 10pm without the reason of a family or work-related emergency is liable to immediate arrest, a fine or a month's imprisonment.

The curfew applies only to La Madeleine and its 12,500 inhabitants, leaving the rest of Evreux's citizens free to enjoy its art nouveau theatre and restaurants.

The apparent inequality of the measure was not lost on Sonny, 18, whose parents moved to Evreux from Mali before he was born. He described himself as one of the racaille or "scum" referred to by the Interior Minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, when talking about the rioters."It's typical isn't it?" he said. "They want to keep us in our cage while the rest of the town carries on like nothing happened. It will work for a while. We'll all be good boys for a while and then it will happen again."

The town authorities have been unmoved by criticism that the curfew is heavy handed, saying it is a necessary short-term measure supported by many in La Madeleine itself.

But others see political overtones to the curfew. Evreux's mayor, Jean-Louis Debré, is the speaker of the National Assembly, the French parliament, and thus a senior member of the right-wing government criticised for its handling of the crisis. One social worker on the estate said: "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that government figures want to show their own houses are in order."

Built for workers needed for post-war industrialisation, the area has steadily become home to many nationalities, largely north African, west African, Turkish and Chinese.

Stephanie Nizan, who works for Régie des Quartiers, a volunteer organisation working in deprived estates, said: "The rioting was inexcusable but it was the discontent of a small minority. It is a safety valve in a place with two populations who don't really know each other."

President Jacques Chirac recognised yesterday that more needed to be done to deal with discrimination. "Everyone has a right to respect and equality of chances and not everyone has the impression that they have it," he said. "An important effort has been made for three years. It probably hasn't gone fast enough."

Comments