06 November 2005

The Paris Riots of 2005

Paris is having riots. This is not the first time this has ever happened, hence the 2005 modifier in the title of this post. But, these riots are worst than most in the history of France, and probably the worst since 1968, which was as big a year in French history as it was in American history.

[T]he violence, which has become one of the most serious challenges to government authority here in nearly 40 years, showed no sign of abating, and Sunday was the first time policemen 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 trouble began Oct. 27.

Just on Saturday night, the tally 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 Sunday night and hundreds of youths were reported to have clashed with police in Grigny, south 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, national police spokesman, said early Monday morning. He said one of the officers hospitalized had been hit in the neck, the other in the leg, but that neither wound was life-threatening.

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

While the arson is wider-spread 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.

Car burning has become over the past 30 years a familiar form of protest in these neighborhoods and even a kind of delinquent entertainment. Every New Year's Eve dozens of cars are set alight in the eastern city of Strasbourg and more than 20,000 cars had already been burned in France this year before the recent violence.

Though the majority of the youths committing the acts are Muslim, French-Arabs and French-Africans, 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 participated. . . .

Young people in the poor neighborhoods incubating the violence have consistently complained that police harassment is mainly to blame. They say such harassment has pushed people's patience to the limit.

"If you're treated like a dog, you react like a dog," said Mr. Diallo, whose parents emigrated to France from Mali decades ago.

They have singled out the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, complaining about his zero-tolerance anti-crime drive and dismissive talk (he famously called troublemakers in the poor neighborhoods "lowlifes," using a French slur that offended many people).

So far away, and yet, so familiar.

Maybe I'm naiive, but I don't have the sense that this kind of explosive anger is brewing in the United States in the same way it is in France right now.

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