Marauders disrupt quiet Paris protests

Gangs from projects beat students, police say

March 28, 2006|By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | SEBASTIAN ROTELLA,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS -- With her pink-and-orange dyed hair and pierced lower lip, Manuella Pereira considers herself a rebel standing up for young people across France.

But the 17-year-old from a well-to-do suburb learned a harsh lesson about solidarity when she went to Paris last week to join a student march at the Invalides military monument.

"A friend of mine got robbed and I got tear-gassed," said Pereira, a student at Albert Schweitzer High School in Le Raincy. In scenes shown on television, swarms of hooded, masked youths infiltrated the march Thursday in an upscale tourist district in the heart of Paris, beating and stomping marchers, stealing their cell phones and money, and setting cars on fire.

The mayhem recalled last year's riots in outlying, immigrant-dominated housing projects. Many of the marauders at the Invalides and in similar incidents were not students but unemployed dropouts from the projects, police say.

"On one side, the cars burning, and on the other, people with their families marching peacefully," Pereira said. "The [vandals] don't care about their future. They just want to perpetrate violence no matter what."

As France braces for nationwide strikes today - transit workers began last night - to protest a new labor law, an embattled government confronts two youth crises that threaten to converge with resounding impact.

One involves the students, mostly middle-class and wealthy activists whose movement has shut down high schools and universities with the kind of rowdy, but essentially nonviolent, protests to which the French are accustomed. Joined by France's powerful labor unions, the students accuse the government of endangering their future job security with proposed labor reforms.

The second involves the bleak, crime-ridden public housing projects where unemployment among young people approaches 50 percent. Youths there also want a better future, but tend to express their discontent with outbursts of arson and vandalism.

The collision of the two has created new tension in the streets. Yesterday, more than a hundred vandals went on a rampage outside a high school occupied by student protesters in St.- Denis, a tough suburb near the flash point of the November riots, and burned cars and threw stones.

Such incidents are spreading, according to leaders of cities that bore the brunt of the riots and have been on alert for the past four months. They worry that the labor protests could be a spark or pretext for new and potentially worse troubles.

"The same [troublemakers] as in November are reappearing, but this time in broad daylight," said Deputy Mayor Jean Christophe Lagarde of Drancy, a town just north of Paris.

The mayhem shatters any illusions about unity among France's young people. The gangs that disrupt marches and attack the protesters often feel contempt for students, whom they see as privileged and weak rich kids, a police intelligence commander said.

Police are struggling to contain the roving vandals. The emerging trend breaks with previous violence that was confined to housing projects and directed mainly against property and police, said the commander.

"There's great hostility toward the high-schoolers and the university students, a kind of social racism against the young bourgeoisie," he said. "Ninety percent of the kids from the projects don't leave their territory to engage in that kind of activity. That's why the riots were in the projects. But here you have acquisitive, destructive violence. ... The idea is to rob, destroy, spread fear. It's a show of force. It has no political aspect for the moment."

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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