Violence disrupts France’s summer doldrums


The shell of a burnt out car is seen Tuesday in a neighborhood of Amiens, France. Dozens of young men rioted in a troubled district in northern France after weeks of tensions, pulling drivers from their cars and stealing the vehicles, and burning a school and a youth center. The police department in Amiens says at least 16 officers were hurt by the time the riot ended. (Georges Charrieres/AP)
August 14, 2012

As a rash of violence intrudes on France’s summer holiday torpor, President Francois Hollande paid tribute to French police Tuesday and vowed to increase funding to put more officers in troubled suburban neighborhoods.

Hollande’s promise, coming on the 100th day of his presidency, recalled a list of similar pledges from his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative who had made a crackdown on crime a hallmark of his time in office, first as interior minister and later as president.

Both leaders’ promises reflected a particular determination to halt violent crime on the suburban edges of large French cities, where unemployment and poverty among immigrants and their children contribute to drug dealing, thefts and murders that police often seem unable to control. A flare-up of rioting, armed robberies and attacks on police have captured headlines this summer, a season when many French families are at the beach for what is supposed to be a tranquil respite.

Hollande, a Socialist who frequently criticized Sarkozy’s crime-fighting zeal when he was in the opposition, adopted a no-tolerance tone Tuesday reminiscent of Sarkozy’s. But he suggested that his government would do a better job of carrying out its pledges.

“There is violence, there is delinquency, there is criminality, and it must be prevented and dissuaded,” he declared, denouncing gaps in the justice system that allow repeat offenders to strike again. “We have an obligation to take steps that, beyond the words and beyond the laws, create a follow-up system that works to prevent such crimes.”

Hollande spoke at a police headquarters in Pierrefeu-du-Var, a town in southern France near the government-owned seaside fortress where he is vacationing. He visited the facility briefly to honor the memory of two policewomen who were killed in June by a repeat offender, seizing the opportunity to denounce, as well, a recent attack on two policemen in Aix-en-Provence.

As he spoke, officials were estimating the damage from an overnight riot in Amiens, about 72 miles north of Paris, during which dozens of youths, some of them hooded and carrying shotguns, battled police and set fire to public buildings and parked cars. Local officials said 16 riot police officers were injured, some by buckshot and others by gasoline bombs.

The violence began Sunday evening after a resident of a northern Amiens neighborhood was stopped for a traffic violation. Bystanders said he was manhandled by police and that a crowd quickly gathered. Monday night’s violence exploded when a squad of police entered the area to reimpose order, according to Mayor Gilles Demailly.

“It’s a neighborhood where a lot of people are in trouble,” Demailly told television interviewers.

Sarkozy’s coalition, the Union for a Popular Movement, quickly seized on the violence in Amiens as proof of what it suggested was Hollande’s lax attitude toward crime.

“If it is confirmed that civil servants assigned to enforce the law were fired on with buckshot by thugs, that is totally unacceptable,” said Thierry Mariani, a security specialist with the party. “It is obvious that I expect a firm response from the government.”

The far-right National Front party also issued a statement calling on Hollande to guarantee that “France makes itself respected” in the suburbs.

The Amiens riot, although the largest, was not the only such uprising in recent days. Similar violence broke out over the weekend in a poor neighborhood of Toulouse, in southwestern France. Marseille, to the east, has been the scene of a months-long gang war between rival drug distribution networks, leading to a number of unsolved murders.

In addition, the Alpine city of Grenoble was shaken last week by a violent holdup in which a jewelry store owner was wounded and a young woman was taken hostage. Hollande visited the victims and, as he did Tuesday, pledged more resources for police.

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