Rage of French Youth Is a Fight for Recognition

A man walks past the charred remains of cars in Suresnes, west of Paris. Youths have torched 900 vehicles and a dozen schools, police stations and youth centers across France.
A man walks past the charred remains of cars in Suresnes, west of Paris. Youths have torched 900 vehicles and a dozen schools, police stations and youth centers across France. (By Jacques Brinon -- Associated Press)

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 6, 2005

LE BLANC-MESNIL, France, Nov. 5 -- Mohammed Rezzoug, caretaker of the municipal gymnasium and soccer field, knows far more about the youths hurling firebombs and torching cars on the streets of this Paris suburb than do the police officers and French intelligence agents struggling to nail the culprits.

He can identify most of the perpetrators. So can almost everyone else in the neighborhoods that have been attacked.

"They're my kids," said Rezzoug, a garrulous 45-year-old with thinning black hair and skin the color of a walnut.

While French politicians say the violence now circling and even entering the capital of France and spreading to towns across the country is the work of organized criminal gangs, the residents of Le Blanc-Mesnil know better. Many of the rioters grew up playing soccer on Rezzoug's field. They are the children of baggage handlers at nearby Charles de Gaulle International Airport and cleaners at the local schools.

"It's not a political revolution or a Muslim revolution," said Rezzoug. "There's a lot of rage. Through this burning, they're saying, 'I exist, I'm here.' "

Such a dramatic demand for recognition underscores the chasm between the fastest growing segment of France's population and the staid political hierarchy that has been inept at responding to societal shifts. The youths rampaging through France's poorest neighborhoods are the French-born children of African and Arab immigrants, the most neglected of the country's citizens. A large percentage are members of the Muslim community that accounts for about 10 percent of France's 60 million people.

One of Rezzoug's "kids" -- the countless youths who use the sports facilities he oversees -- is a husky, French-born 18-year-old whose parents moved here from Ivory Coast. At 3 p.m. on Saturday, he'd just awakened and ventured back onto the streets after a night of setting cars ablaze.

"We want to change the government," he said, a black baseball cap pulled low over large, chocolate-brown eyes and an ebony face. "There's no way of getting their attention. The only way to communicate is by burning."

Like other youths interviewed about their involvement in the violence of the last 10 days, he spoke on the condition he not be identified for fear the police would arrest him.

But he and others described the nightly rampages without fear, surrounded by groups of younger boys who listened with rapt attention. A few yards away, older residents of the neighborhood, many with gray hair, passed out notices appealing for an end to the violence.

A man with wire-rimmed glasses handed one of the sheets to the black-capped youth. He accepted the paper, glanced at it and smiled respectfully at his elder. The boy then carefully folded it in half and continued the conversation about how the nightly targets are selected.

"We don't plan anything," he said. "We just hit whatever we find at the moment."

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