Police stepped up security in northern Paris suburbs on Tuesday. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Paris suburb riots called 'a lot worse' than in 2005

News Analysis

PARIS: The rituals and acts of rage have an eerie sameness to them: roving gangs of angry youths clashing with the riot police in France's edgy suburbs, the government appealing for calm, local officials and residents complaining that their problems are ignored.

Two years after an orgy of violence in which rioters in more than 300 suburbs and towns torched cars, trashed businesses and ambushed the riot police and firefighters, Villiers-le-Bel and several nearby suburbs of Paris similarly have erupted in violence and destruction.

In one sense, the unrest seems to be more menacing than during the early days of the three weeks of rioting in 2005. Then, the youth seemed disorganized, their destruction largely caused by rock-throwing and arson and aimed at the closest and easiest targets, like cars. This time, hunting shotguns, as well as gasoline bombs and rocks, have been turned on the police.

"From what our colleagues on the scene tell us, this is a situation that is a lot worse than what we saw in 2005," Patrice Ribeiro, a police officer and senior union official, told RTL radio Tuesday. He added, "A line was crossed last night, that is to say, they used weapons, they used weapons and fired on the police. This is a real guerrilla war."

Ribeiro warned that the police, who have struggled to avoid excessive force, would not be fired upon indefinitely without responding.

More than 80 police officers already have been wounded the clashes, several of them seriously, Ribeiro said later by telephone. Thirty of them were hit with pellets from shotguns, and one of the wounded was hit with a type of bullet used to kill large game, he added. It is legal to own a shotgun in France - as long as the owner has a license - and police circles were swirling with rumors that the bands of youth were procuring more shotguns.

It is impossible to predict whether the violence will continue and spread to the much larger cluster of Parisian suburbs around the town of Seine-Saint-Denis, the area where violence was concentrated in 2005, or to the rest of the country.

But the events of the past three days make clear that the underlying causes of frustration and anger - particularly among unemployed, undereducated youth, mostly the offspring of Arab and African immigrants - remain the same.

"We have heard promise after promise, but nothing has been done in the suburbs since the last riots, nothing," said François Pupponi, the Socialist mayor of Sarcelles, which has been struck by violence. "The suburbs are like tinderboxes. You have people in terrible social circumstances, plus all the rage, plus all the hate, plus all the rumors and all you need is one spark to set them on fire."

Indeed, after the unrest in 2005, the government of then-President Jacques Chirac - with Nicolas Sarkozy, now president, as the tough law-and-order interior minister - announced measures to improve life in the suburbs, including extra money for housing, schools and neighborhood associations and counseling and job training for unemployed youths. None has gone very far.

At that time, Sarkozy alienated a huge swath of inhabitants in the troubled ethnic pockets of France, but afterward reverted to a low-key approach, which he has maintained ever since. During his presidential campaign, he stayed away from France's suburbs, aware that his presence would only inflame public opinion against him.

In his six months as president, he largely has focused on injecting new life into France's flaccid economy through job creation and lowering taxes and consumer prices. His most notable initiative in dealing with youth crime has been punitive: the passage of a law last July that required a minimum sentence for repeat offenders and in many cases allowed minors between 16 and 18 years of age to be tried and sentenced as adults.

Since September, Fadela Amara, his outspoken junior minister who has been given the task of drawing up a policy for the suburbs, has been holding town hall meetings throughout France in preparation for what is to be a "Marshall Plan" for the suburbs. Her proposals are scheduled to be unveiled in January.

"We've been talking about a Marshall Plan for the suburbs since the early 1990s," said Adil Jazouli, a sociologist who focuses on the suburbs. "We don't need poetry. We don't need reflection. We need money."

After he returns home from China, Sarkozy on Wednesday plans to visit a seriously wounded senior police officers at a hospital near the northern Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel.

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