As Youth Riots Spread Across France, Muslim Groups Attempt to Intervene

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 5, 2005

SEVRAN, France, Nov. 4 -- By dusk Friday, the streets of Sevran were deserted. Inside high-rise apartments and stone cottages here on the outskirts of Paris, residents waited for the explosions and sirens to begin.

"Last night I thought I was in Baghdad, not somewhere in France," said Nabila Chaibi, a 22-year-old sales clerk, her angular face swathed in a white head scarf. Her eyes displayed the fatigue of a sleepless night.

Sevran is at the epicenter of violence that has convulsed many of the poor immigrant areas in Paris's northern suburbs for nine days. After the sun set Friday night, the violence resumed, with youths setting fire to two buildings, including a bakery, and 10 cars in the northern community of Val d'Oise, police reported.

Night after night, youths armed with rocks, sticks and gasoline bombs have confronted police and set cars, businesses, government buildings and schools on fire. Police officers said Friday that approximately 1,260 vehicles had been torched in the Paris area in the past week, including 23 buses parked in a depot near Versailles.

The worst unrest in France in recent years has paralyzed the government, setting senior officials bickering over how to curb the violence. President Jacques Chirac has not publicly addressed the country other than to issue a statement through his spokesman appealing for calm.

The attacks have underscored anger and frustration among immigrants and their French-born children who inhabit the country's largest and poorest slum areas. A large percentage of this population is Muslim, and Islamic neighborhood groups have been trying to dissuade young people from taking part in the rioting.

Thursday night into Friday morning, the violence spread to other parts of France for the first time. Attacks and fires were reported in Normandy on the northwest coast, Dijon in the central Burgundy region and Provence in the far south.

The attacks were triggered when two Muslim teenagers were electrocuted last week after they leapt into a power substation in an attempt to evade a police who had set up an identity checkpoint. Several dozen policemen and assailants have since been injured in street fighting, but no further deaths have been reported.

Still, some of the violence has been devastating. On Wednesday night, youths firebombed a bus here with the passengers inside. As the last passenger, a 56-year-old woman, descended the steps on crutches, an assailant splashed her with gasoline and another threw a flaming rag at her, according to residents and police reports. The driver put out the flames and rushed her to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with second- and third-degree burns.

"The last two nights, there was panic everywhere," said Bekkay Merzak, a leader of the Islamic organization in Sevran. "People didn't know what was happening outside their own buildings. When they left a car out, they didn't know what they would find in the morning."

The French government has deployed 1,300 riot police in the streets of troubled communities. It has dispatched firefighters from around the Paris region to relieve their suburban counterparts, exhausted from the nightly demands of chasing hundreds of blazes.

Some politicians and police unions have urged the government to declare a state of emergency or impose curfews on the communities that have been hit hardest.

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