Anger Erupts In Paris Suburb After Deaths Of Muslim Boys

Firemen try to extinguish a car that was set on fire during the fifth night of riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris.
Firemen try to extinguish a car that was set on fire during the fifth night of riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris. (By Franck Prevel -- Reuters)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France, Nov. 1 -- Adel Benna tried to put himself in the shoes of his shy 17-year-old brother, Ziad, and two teenage friends who scaled a wall and leapt into the cables of a power substation last Thursday evening -- willing to face electrocution rather than the French police officers they were trying to evade in this impoverished Paris suburb.

"Young people don't just throw themselves into an electrical current," Benna said Tuesday, his voice trembling in anger. "They looked behind them and saw something that made them so terrified, so desperate, they did it out of absolute fear. I hate the police. They are responsible for my brother's death."

Ziad Benna and his friend Bouna Traore, 15, sons of working-class African Muslim immigrants, were both electrocuted, setting off five days of rioting, firebombing and car burning that continued here Tuesday. The third youth survived.

Groups of young men have attacked postal service vans and a police station, and set fire to trash bins during rampages that spread into neighboring suburban towns Tuesday. The French news media reported that about three dozen law enforcement officials and rioters have been injured in the violence.

On Tuesday morning, parking lots and street curbs were littered with hulks of dozens of burned vehicles.

The street fighting less than an hour's subway ride from the heart of Paris has underscored France's failed efforts to stem the growing unrest within a largely Muslim immigrant population that feels disenfranchised and is beset by high unemployment and crime. An estimated 6 million Muslims live in France, many of them in dismal high-rise enclaves like this one.

"It's unemployment, it's pressure -- it just exploded," Bouhout Abderrahmane, 54, who heads the local Muslim Cultural Association, said Tuesday morning, visibly exhausted after an all-night effort to quell the continuing violence in this town.

Many residents were outraged Sunday night when a police tear gas canister was thrown into a local mosque during prayers for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. An estimated 700 coughing and panicked worshipers ran for the doors.

Residents accused the police of deliberately attacking the mosque. French officials said they were investigating the incident, which occurred during police skirmishes with youths near the place of worship, a white concrete box of a building attached to a small grocery.

The violence focused criticism on Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a prominent candidate in the 2007 presidential stakes. The week before the youths' deaths, he had announced "a war without mercy" on crime in the Paris suburbs.

Sarkozy, who has also called for affirmative action programs, fumbled in his initial response to the violence. He at first referred to the two dead boys as juvenile delinquents who were wanted in connection with a robbery, then amended that to say they were suspected of vandalizing a construction site.

On Monday, during a visit to the nearby police station, he said the youths were "not criminals" and had no criminal records, and promised a full investigation so that "everyone will know the truth."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company