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Monday, November 07, 2005

10 Officers Shot as Riots Worsen in French Cities - New York Times

10 Officers Shot as Riots Worsen in French Cities - New York TimesNovember 7, 2005
10 Officers Shot as Riots Worsen in French Cities
By CRAIG S. SMITH

PARIS, Monday, Nov. 7 - Rioters fired shotguns at the police in a working-class suburb of Paris on Sunday, wounding 10 officers as the country's fast-spreading urban unrest escalated dangerously. Just hours earlier, President Jacques Chirac called an emergency meeting of top security officials and promised increased police pressure to confront the violence.

"The republic is completely determined to be stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear," Mr. Chirac said at a news conference in the courtyard of Élysée Palace after meeting with his internal security council. "The last word must be from the law."

But the violence, which has become one of the most serious challenges to governmental authority here in nearly 40 years, showed no sign of abating, and Sunday was the first day that police officers had been wounded by gunfire in the unrest. More than 3,300 vehicles have been destroyed, along with dozens of public buildings and private businesses, since the violence began.

"This is just the beginning," said Moussa Diallo, 22, a tall, unemployed French-African man in Clichy-sous-Bois, the working-class Parisian suburb where the violence started Oct. 27. "It's not going to end until there are two policemen dead."

He was referring to the two teenage boys, one of Mauritanian origin and the other of Tunisian origin, whose accidental deaths while hiding from the police touched off the unrest, reflecting longstanding anger among many immigrant families here over joblessness and discrimination. Mr. Diallo did not say whether he had taken part in the vandalism.

On Saturday night alone, the tally in the rioting reached a peak of 1,300 vehicles burned, stretching into the heart of Paris, where 35 vehicles were destroyed, and touching a dozen other cities across the country.

Fires were burning in several places on Sunday night and hundreds of youths were reported to have clashed with the police in Grigny, a southern suburb of Paris where the shooting took place. On Saturday night, a car was rammed into the front of a McDonald's restaurant in the town.

"We have 10 policemen that were hit by gunfire in Grigny, and two of them are in the hospital," Patrick Hamon, a national police spokesman, said Monday morning.

He said one of the officers hospitalized had been hit in the neck, the other in the leg, but added that neither wound was considered life-threatening.

Rampaging youths have attacked the police and property in cities as far away as Toulouse and Marseille and in the resort towns of Cannes and Nice in the south, the industrial city of Lille in the north and Strasbourg to the east.

In Évreux, 60 miles west of Paris, shops, businesses, a post office and two schools were destroyed, along with at least 50 vehicles, in Saturday night's most concentrated attacks. Five police officers and three firefighters were injured in clashes with young rioters, a national police spokesman said.

Despite help from thousands of reinforcements, the police appeared powerless to stop the mayhem. As they apply pressure in one area, the attacks slip away to another.

On Sunday, a gaping hole exposed a charred wooden staircase of a smoke-blackened building in the historic Marais district of Paris, where a car was set ablaze the previous night. Florent Besnard, 24, said he and a friend had just turned into the quiet Rue Dupuis when they were passed by two running youths. Within seconds, a car farther up the street was engulfed in flames, its windows popping and tires exploding as the fire spread to the building and surrounding vehicles.

"I think it's going to continue," said Mr. Besnard, who is unemployed.

The attack angered people in the neighborhood, which includes the old Jewish quarter and is still a center of Jewish life in the city. "We escaped from Romania with nothing and came here and worked our fingers to the bone and never asked for anything, never complained," said Liliane Zump, a woman in her 70's, shaking with fury on the street outside the scarred building.

While the arson is more common than in the past, it has become a feature of life in the working-class suburbs, peopled primarily by North African and West African immigrants and their French-born children. Unemployment in the neighborhoods is double and sometimes triple the 10 percent national average, while incomes are about 40 percent lower.

While everyone seems to agree that the latest violence was touched off by the deaths of the teenagers last week, the unrest no longer has much to do with the incident.

"It was a good excuse, but it's fun to set cars on fire," said Mohamed Hammouti, a 15-year-old boy in Clichy-sous-Bois, sitting Sunday outside the gutted remnants of a gymnasium near his home. Like many people interviewed, he denied having participated in the violence.

Most people said they sensed that the escalation of the past few days had changed the rules of the game: besides the number of attacks, the level of destruction has grown sharply, with substantial businesses and public buildings going down in flames. Besides the gunfire on Sunday, residents of some high-rise apartment blocks have been throwing steel boccie balls and improvised explosives at national riot police officers patrolling below.

In the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers early Sunday, with smoke hanging in the air and a helicopter humming overhead, a helmeted police officer in a flak jacket carried a soft drink bottle gingerly away from where it had landed near him and his colleagues moments before. The bottle, half-filled with a clear liquid and nails, had failed to explode.

Teenagers in neighboring Clichy-sous-Bois said they had seen young men preparing similar devices with acid and aluminum foil. "They make a huge bang," said Sofiane Belkalem, 13.

The police discovered what they described as a firebomb factory in a building in Évry, south of Paris, in which about 150 bombs were being constructed, a third of them ready to use. Six minors were arrested.

Many politicians have warned that the unrest may be coalescing into an organized movement, citing Internet chatter that is urging other poor neighborhoods across France to join in. But no one has emerged to take the lead like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, known as Danny the Red, did during the violent student protests that rocked the French capital in 1968.

Though a majority of the youths committing the acts are Muslim, and of African or North African origin, the mayhem has yet to take on any ideological or religious overtones. Youths in the neighborhoods say second-generation Portuguese immigrants and even some children of native French have taken part.

In an effort to stop the attacks and distance them from Islam, France's most influential Islamic group issued a religious edict, or fatwa, condemning the violence. "It is formally forbidden for any Muslim seeking divine grace and satisfaction to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone's life," the fatwa said, citing the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad.

Young people in the poor neighborhoods incubating the violence have consistently complained that police harassment is mainly to blame. "If you're treated like a dog, you react like a dog," said Mr. Diallo of Clichy-sous-Bois, whose parents came to France from Mali decades ago.

The youths have singled out the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, complaining about his zero-tolerance anticrime drive and dismissive talk. (He famously called troublemakers in the poor neighborhoods dregs, using a French slur that offended many people.)

But Mr. Sarkozy has not wavered, and after suffering initial isolation within the government, with at least one minister openly criticizing him, the government has closed ranks around him. Mr. Chirac, who is under political and popular pressure to stop the violence, said Sunday that those responsible would face arrest and trial, echoing earlier vows by Mr. Sarkozy. More than 500 people have been arrested, some as young as 13.

The government response is as much a test between Mr. Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, both of whom want to succeed Mr. Chirac as president, as it is a test between the government and disaffected youths.

Mr. Villepin, a former foreign minister, has focused on a more diplomatic approach, consulting widely with community leaders and young second-generation immigrants to come up with a promised "action plan" that he said would address frustrations in the underprivileged neighborhoods. He has released no details of the plan.

If the damage escalates and sympathy for the rioters begins to fray, Mr. Sarkozy could well emerge the politically stronger of the two.

Ariane Bernard contributed reporting for this article.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:21 PM

    It goes without saying, but be prepared, get a automatic internal cardiac defibrillator here!

    ReplyDelete