Rioters Attack Trains, Schools and Businesses in the Paris Suburbs

A car burns during rioting in Le Blanc-Mesnil, one of several Paris suburbs wracked by violence since two Muslim teenagers died on Oct. 27.
A car burns during rioting in Le Blanc-Mesnil, one of several Paris suburbs wracked by violence since two Muslim teenagers died on Oct. 27. (By Franck Prevel -- Reuters)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 4, 2005

PARIS, Nov. 3 -- The street rampage of angry youths continued to expand across immigrant-dominated suburbs of Paris Thursday, with gangs attacking commuter trains, elementary schools and businesses in an eighth night of violence, according to local police officials.

French government leaders met in emergency sessions for a second day but again failed to agree on how to stem the violence.

Rock-throwing gangs attacked two trains linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle Airport, dragging out a conductor and smashing windows. Other attackers torched a car dealership, supermarket and gymnasium in violence in at least nine impoverished towns and communities populated primarily by immigrants and first-generation French citizens. A large percentage of the area's population is Muslim.

Police reported that guns were fired at police in the town of La Courneuve, north of Paris, and at firefighters in two other communities. Police said no one was reported hit in the shooting.

Police unions proposed curfews and reinforcements from the French military to curb the violence. Law enforcement officials had prepared for more unrest Thursday night, the Muslim holy night of Eid al-Fitr, with the deployment of 1,300 police officers on the streets of the inflamed suburbs, officials said.

Local police officials estimated that as many as 175 cars and trucks were set ablaze by marauding rioters Wednesday night and Thursday morning as many residents of the towns' high-rise, subsidized housing projects cowered inside their apartments.

In the northern suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, youths torched a Renault car showroom and attacked two elementary schools, a post office and a shopping center. Rioters overturned and burned a French TV truck in the northern suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil and pelted a police station in the western town of Hauts-de-Seine with gasoline bombs, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

Rioters sought targets of opportunity or taunted groups of riot police crouched behind shields.

"Order and justice will be the final word in our country," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said after a series of meetings with cabinet ministers Thursday. "The return to calm and the restoration of order are the priority -- our absolute priority."

Villepin proposed no action to bolster public statements, which have had no discernible effect on the violence. The cabinet has weighed proposals for a forceful response against concern that such a move would merely bring more rioters onto the streets.

"We see the situation in certain neighborhoods is not getting better at all, but degenerating," Socialist Party leader Jean-Marc Ayrault told French LCI television. He said President Jacques Chirac's government "did not know how to take control."

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said in a television interview that he believed the rioting "was not spontaneous, it was perfectly organized." He said law enforcement authorities did not know who was organizing the violence and offered no evidence to support the statement.

Most of the unrest is occurring in Paris's northern suburbs, but violence has also broken out in towns on the western and southern edges of the city. French officials have neglected the high-rise housing projects of the suburbs, similar to inner-city slums in the United States, for decades. Many analysts see the violence as a response to high unemployment and lack of services.

The rioting began after two teenage Muslim boys -- a 17-year-old immigrant from Tunisia and a 15-year-old whose parents are from Africa -- were electrocuted when they hid in a high-voltage power substation while trying to avoid a police checkpoint in the northeastern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.

French officials formally opened an investigation into the case Thursday -- a week after the boys died. A third youth, of Turkish descent, was injured in the incident and is being treated in a hospital, according to his family.

Family members said the youths were being chased by the police. Police officials deny that.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company