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French government in crisis mode

Associated Press and Canadian Press

Paris — France's government went into crisis mode Wednesday to deal with spreading rioting in the suburbs of Paris, with the Prime Minister postponing a trip to Canada and the President calling for calm.

In tough northeastern suburbs around Clichy-sous-Bois, where the accidental deaths of two teenagers last week first prompted angry youths to rampage, the hulks of burned-out cars littered streets and young men prepared for a seventh consecutive night of fighting with riot police.

Leaders at Clichy-sous-Bois' mosque prayed for peace and asked parents to keep teenagers off the streets.

The violence, which spread to at least nine Paris-region towns overnight Tuesday, laid bare the despair, anger and deep-rooted criminality in France's poor, unemployment-hit suburbs — some of them ghettos where police hesitate to venture despite proof they are fertile terrain for Islamic extremists, drug dealers and racketeers.

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The unrest, concentrated in neighbourhoods with large African and Muslim populations, has highlighted the difficulties many European countries face with immigrant communities feeling marginalized and restive, cut off from Europe's prosperity and, for some extremists, its values.

"They have no work. They have nothing to do. Put yourself in their place," said Abderrahmane Bouhout, president of the Clichy-sous-Bois mosque, where a tear gas grenade exploded Sunday, fuelling the anger of local youths who suspected a police attack. Authorities are investigating the incident.

To deal with the unrest, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin postponed a visit to Canada and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy cancelled a Nov. 6-9 trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Ottawa, Melanie Gruer, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Paul Martin, said Mr. Villepin's visit will be rescheduled. The Canadian government is disappointed but understands the postponement, she said.

French President Jacques Chirac, meanwhile, told a weekly cabinet meeting that "the law must be applied firmly" but "in a spirit of dialogue and respect" to prevent "a dangerous situation" from developing. He acknowledged the "profound frustrations" of troubled neighbourhoods but said violence is not the answer.

"Zones without law cannot exist in the republic," he said.

The violence cast doubt on the success of France's model of seeking to integrate its large immigrant community by playing down differences between ethnic groups.

France's Muslim population, at an estimated five million, is Western Europe's largest. Rather than embraced as equal citizens, immigrants and their French-born children often complain of police harassment and of being refused jobs, housing and opportunities.

Eric, a 22-year-old in Clichy-sous-Bois born in France to Moroccan parents, said police target young people with dark skin. He said he has been unable to find full-time work for two years and that the riots were a demonstration of suburban solidarity.

"People are joining together to say we've had enough," he said. He refused to give his surname, saying that talking to reporters was poorly regarded in his neighbourhood. "We live in ghettos," he added. "Everyone lives in fear."

Many immigrant families are trapped in low-cost housing projects built to accommodate foreign labourers after the Second World War, but which have since succumbed to chronic unemployment and lawlessness. In some neighbourhoods, drug dealers and racketeers hold sway and Islamic radicals seek to recruit disenchanted youths, experts say.

"French society is in a bad state ... increasingly unequal, increasingly segregated, and increasingly divided along ethnic and racial lines," said sociologist Manuel Boucher. Some youths turn to Islam to claim an identity that is not French, "to seize on something which gives them back their individual and collective dignity."

Successive governments have injected funds and job-creation schemes but failed to resolve the problems.

"No matter what the politicians say, some neighbourhoods are all but lost," said Patrice Ribeiro, national secretary of the Synergie police officers' union. "Police patrols pass through but without stopping and with their windows rolled up."

In Aulnay-sous-Bois, another northeastern suburb where riot police fired rubber bullets at advancing gangs of youths Tuesday, workers cleaned up charred debris and menacing young men smoked cigarettes in doorways. A group of teenagers chased and threw stones at Associated Press reporters.

"I am afraid. I have children. I have never seen anything like this here," said Aulnay resident Houcine Yahiaoui. "I was watching from my windows last night as kids were burning cars."

Police said 180 vehicles were torched across the Paris region, most of them in the Seine-Saint-Denis region that includes Clichy, Aulnay and other violence-hit neighbourhoods. Police made 35 arrests in Seine-Saint-Denis.

Latest Comments in the Conversation

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  1. timothy smith from Vancouver, Canada writes: Interesting comments. For me this incident in France fits with a

    pattern of failure within Western liberal-democracies; it is a broken

    model. Riots in France, Katrina in New Orleans, currently in Canada an

    indigenous nation needs emergy evacuation from their reserve ( the

    reserve system being a model of segregation studied by the notorious

    Apartheid Regime in South-Africa which was phased-out of power in

    1994). On another note perhaps banning headscarves from schools

    exemplifies the exclusionary appraoch of the current French government

    and probably of 'white' French society in general.
  2. Wal Nussbaum from Outremont (QC), Canada writes: It seems every conversation on this topic has to include a reactionary comment from someone like Mr Fijne. If you had more knowledge about the history of French colonialism in Algeria, beginning with a dirty war in 1832.. and not ending until a protracted dirty war that in the 1950s and 1960s, you would BEGIN to understand how insulting your comment truly is.
    Reasonable French people recognize that they did little to integrate immigrants.As for the headscarf issue, which someone else cited as an example of the French state's anti-Muslim policy: It is important to note that there are a number of practicing Muslims who also share the French Republican ideal of secularism (laïcité).As so often, this whole phenomenon, comprised of a host of issues, is multi-faceted, and at times even contradictory. 
  3. parklane 47 from Washington, DC, United States writes: Before we Canadians think of Paris, we should look at the developing state of our cities.  Winnipeg, leader in murders, Montreal, leader in welfare recipients, and Toronto becoming engulfed by the fear of crime and neglect.  Politicians of large Canadian cities fail to represent the needs of Canadian cities.  They only serve their own party interests that exploit the tax revenues generated.  This bleeds dry the revenues each and every city across Canada needs to combat the impoverishment we read in this article.
  4. Dwight Fulmore from Courtenay, Canada writes: I fail to see the link between religion/poverty and the lunacy and lawlessness on the streets of Paris. Why are we always so eager to bash the white guys or the government for not doing something different to make someone else's life easier. Many impoverished people have much worse living conditions that those of these people in Paris, but they work within the law and peacefully live out their lives. The law is supposed to be no respecter of age, gender, race, religion, financial status, etc. If the law is being abused to subvert one segment of society, then surely in a western society, with freedom of press etc. those abuses can be brought to light in a peaceful way, there is never a justification for breaking a law in protest. If we all accept that there is ANY justification for breaking a law it leaves our whole legal system in a relative position. Anybody could then break any law for whatever he felt was a good reason. Ultimately we would have anarchy. Anarchy or also dicatorships (strongest get to rule) are what we have in many countries of the world today where there is no rule of law, or rights for that matter. I doubt anyone would prefer that to the measure of peace, order and safety we enjoy in western societies today. We should support the rule of law and order and if elected governments are not doing what they are supposed to do or are making bad judgement calls there is a peaceful way to remove them too, it's called an election. If you aren't a citizen of the country and you have no vote, if you don't like your living conditions you can also go back to your own country if you truely felt you would be better off.
  5. Pascal Jacksveer from Paris, France writes: The media are playing up this whole thing. It's always the fault of the government, isn't it? The fingers are being pointed at the wrong people. And how about the white man who was kicked to death by African & Muslim youths in front of his little daughter and wife on the same day the rioting began? No rallies or demonstrations have been staged for him. No call for justice. No indignation. A hatred-fuelled guerilla warfare is in the offing in those suburbs.
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