Paris gets tough on explosive 'banlieues'

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The Independent Online


Car-burning, looting and stone-throwing erupted again yesterday on one of the tough estates in the soulless concrete wasteland south of Paris. Thirteen people were detained and one policeman was injured.

The disturbances, nearGrigny, were the latest in a rash of incidents on housing estates (known simply as banlieues) across France. Last weekend alone there were violent confrontations near Strasbourg and Mulhouse in Alsace, near Toulouse in the south-west, near Grenoble in the south-east and near Dijon in Burgundy.

Estates to the north and east of Paris were also affected, and a policeman was in intensive care after being shot in the head in Mantes-la-Jolie, a town to the west of Paris with a history of trouble.

With disturbances being reported nightly, "what to do about the banlieues" has become an important concern. But the authorities have been sending distinctly mixed signals.

Last week President Jacques Chirac talked about the need to "extend a helping hand", provide more jobs and services and do nothing that might be construed as a "provocation".

His remarks contrasted with his call in the election campaign for the elimination of "no-go areas" and were hailed as evidence that he had learned that the seething banlieues could not be subdued by force.

On Monday, however, the Interior Ministry's director of public security, Daniel Duglery, announced new, tougher policing for the estates.

Special units were being trained and equipped with fast cars to deal with car theft and joy-riding and with bullet-proof vests and rubber bullets.

In another sign that the banlieues were in for a hard time, the judiciary announced an investigation into an "Afghan terrorist connection", citing evidence that "dozens" of young people from certain estates had received terrorist training in Afghanistan.

The authorities insist the outbreaks derive from the same factors as earlier violence: the preponderance of young people on the estates, high unemployment and racial tension caused by high concentrations of North African immigrants.

Many recent incidents, however, have specific causes, which testify to policing which is seen as too heavy-handed.

The disturbances at Grigny are said to have begun when youths tried to attack a flat occupied by someone they believed was responsible for the death of a youth from the Maghreb. The presumed culprit was in custody, but they did not know that. There have been several instances of groups of youths applying their own rough justice where they think the police have failed.

The incident at Mantes-la-Jolie appears to have been the result of police intervening to stop a hashish deal. Other incidents have begun as gang- fights or joy-riding which the police tried to halt.

There is a further explanation which is rarely mentioned by officials: the mild autumn, which has allowed street life to continue longer than usual, and the heightened police activity dictated by the anti-terrorist alert codenamed "Vigipirate".

From the first terrorist bomb on 25 July, when the chief suspects were identified as being of "North African appearance", it was almost exclusively young men of that description who were stopped and searched. After the identification of Khaled Kelkal as the prime suspect in September, the estates themselves, at least those with big North African populations, were subject to early-morning raids and night-time patrols.

With "Vigipirate" now in effect for two months, and Kelkal dead, shot by police, resentment has built up. North African men complain they are stopped whenever they go out. Many were born in France and carry French papers. In this atmosphere, the slightest spark can cause a blaze.