French fear conditions ripe for reprise of last year's riots

October 27, 2006|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS -- A year after the deaths of two teens triggered weeks of arson and rioting, residents and authorities fear that disaffected youths are poised for a renewed cycle of violence.

In recent days, hoodlums set fire to four buses, and other incidents of arson and ambushes of police have accelerated in the past several weeks. The attacks suggest that the anger and frustration of impoverished youths has yet to dissipate and that the measures tried so far by the French government were insufficient, said people who work and live in the restless suburbs of Paris.

The conditions are ripe for a possible repeat of the mayhem that began Oct. 27, 2005.

"If someone were killed that would set it off," said Bruno Pommard, a retired SWAT officer who directs a nonprofit agency for children in Corbeil-Essonnes and other volatile areas of France. "It's simmering."

The attacks Wednesday and yesterday on buses followed the same pattern: Young men, their faces partially masked, boarded the buses, forced the passengers off, doused the vehicles with gasoline and set them afire. In one case the bus was empty. There was also a bus burned over the weekend.

In at least one instance this week, the young men were armed. Even at the height of last year's riots, it was rare to see anyone with a firearm.

"There is obviously a copycat phenomenon between these bus attacks," said David Sukli, the director of public security in Seine-St.-Denis, one of the suburbs where a bus was burned early yesterday. "The media coverage of the first incident in Essonnes probably contributed to giving ideas to those youths."

Last weekend, police were attacked in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the turbulent suburbs northeast of Paris. They responded to an explosion, and 15 youths descended on them throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. One 17-year-old was arrested. A few days earlier, an attack left one police officer badly cut.

It was a year ago today that two youths apparently trying to escape police were electrocuted when they ran into an electrical transformer station. The incident set off three weeks of violence that spread from the capital across France and resulted in thousands of cars burned and some shops vandalized. Long-held resentment of the police and of French attitudes toward immigrants burst into the open. The majority of those rioting were the French-born children of immigrants from northern and sub-Saharan Africa, most of whom are Muslim.

There will be memorial events today in Clichy-sous-Bois to honor the two boys who died there last year and to allow the population a public forum both to grieve and to discuss the community's continuing troubles. The French government has tried to increase job opportunities for the unemployed as well as injecting money into nonprofit organizations that work in destitute areas.

This year's renewal of violence has been treated gingerly by politicians, who are in the early stages of an election campaign. The first round of the presidential election will be held next April 22.

Yesterday, the French government promised law and order but also again vowed to make a greater effort to improve the destitute, isolated banlieues, or suburbs.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told a news conference that the recent attacks "should lead to an immediate response."

"We cannot accept the unacceptable," he told reporters in the northern suburb of Cergy-Pontoise. "There will be arrests. ... That is our responsibility."

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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