`Forgotten' French youths riot

Tensions lessen after black, Muslim kids' 2nd night of revolt

November 28, 2007|By Geraldine Baum | Geraldine Baum,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France -- They burned the library overnight during a riot in this gritty suburb outside of Paris. The blackened shelves and books were thrown around like garbage the next morning, and singed desks were piled on top of each other like old firewood.

As they examined the wreckage yesterday - the senator, the sports coach and the teenagers with sticks and pipes still skulking around in the light of day - all had similar explanations as to why. Why the arson up and down the commercial streets? Why the attack on a preschool and the area's only train station? The death of two teenagers after their motorbike collided Sunday with a police car had ignited a melee. But why two nights of unparalleled violence against police?

"It's a way of making people understand we've had enough," says Charlie Koissi, the 31-year-old coach. "When you touch one of our brothers, no matter what [his] origin, it concerns us."

Raymonde Le Texier, the senator who represents the area in the French Parliament and has lived here 40 years, describes pent-up rage by black and Muslim children of immigrants who feel lost and abandoned.

"People feel forgotten by those in power," Le Texier said. "It's the truth - they have been forgotten."

As for the kids, they throw rocks at outsiders and stare angrily at officials like French Premier Francois Fillon, who breezes past the burned-out library and later calls the rioters "criminals."

By midnight, there was still evidence of tension, but the area generally had calmed down. Unrest flared up briefly in the southern town of Toulouse, where 10 cars and another library were torched by roving posses of disaffected youth.

Theirs is a world apart with its own codes and subculture. When France was paralyzed most of November by widespread strikes, the young in these poor neighborhoods remained calm, quietly enduring the chaos like everybody else. But then two of their own, identified as Moushin, 15, and Larimi, 16, lay dead on the street. Immediately everybody blamed the cops. Cars were set on fire, and blurry photographs of the teenagers with the words "We Love You" written on them were taped on storefronts and street signs. This time around the violence came faster and more furiously than in 2005.

During 200 nights of clashes between ghetto youth and riot police that year, there was only one death and sporadic injuries. But after only two nights of confrontations this week, 80 police were hospitalized, including six who were seriously injured. At least two dozen officers were hit by pellets fired from long guns.

"We're not talking about urban violence anymore, we're talking about insurrection," said Patrice Ribeiro, head of the police union Synergie Officers. "It's more violent than in 2005."

Not much has changed since 2005 in the lives of the young rabble-rousers.

In this town of 27,000, young and older men still roam the streets with nothing to do most weekdays. The jobless rate remains steady at 40 percent.

The French government has been trying to bring renewal to these areas, spending almost $9 billion a year on programs and construction projects. A recent report showed, however, that much of the money had been wasted through inefficiency and duplicated services.

The new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, promises more renewal, but he is also the loathed former interior minister of the previous regime who fanned the violence in 2005 by referring to marauding youth as "scum."

Sarkozy, who returns from China today, has made it clear that he'll side with law enforcement and the people who have lost their cars and their businesses to the unrest.

Geraldine Baum writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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