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."
In Le Blanc-Mesnil, halfway between the northern edge of Paris's city limits and the country's largest airport, youths have burned a gym, a youth center and scores of cars and trucks. Residents here say the violence that began in these northern suburbs on Oct. 27 is the worst ever in these low-income neighborhoods and the most widespread social unrest in France since student riots nearly four decades ago.
Rezzoug said about 18 youths between the ages of 15 and 25 are responsible for most of the fires and attacks on police in Le Blanc-Mesnil, though he said some young men from neighboring towns have joined in the mayhem. The youths said they dodge the authorities by splitting into small groups, using their cellular telephones and text messaging to alert each other to the location of police and firefighters.
For the young men of Le Blanc-Mesnil and hundreds in other impoverished suburbs, one man represents all they find abhorrent in the French government: Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been considered the country's leading contender in the 2007 presidential elections. Last month, he recommended waging a "war without mercy" against criminals and other troublemakers in the poor areas.
A week later, two Muslim teenagers from the northern suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois were electrocuted in a power substation where they were hiding from police who they believed were chasing them. French officials have said police were not pursuing the youths. Their deaths triggered the violence that quickly spread, particularly when Sarkozy called the perpetrators of the violence "scum" and "thugs."
"I'm a citizen of France, but I don't count," said an athletic 28-year-old who identified himself only as Abdel. With his trim black beard and short hair gelled into shiny black wavelets, Abdel hovered on the edge of the circle surrounding the youths who admitted to their involvement in the violence.
"They call us maggots," added a thin teenager hunched inside a thin polyester windbreaker that offered little protection from the damp chill of a gray fall afternoon.
Beyond their hatred of Sarkozy, the youths involved in the rampages and their companions offer a disparate list of grievances against the government.
Abdel, echoing the anger of many of the youths, said he resented the French government's efforts to thrust Muslim leaders into the role of mediators between the police and the violent demonstrators.
"This has nothing to do with religion," he said. "But non-Muslims are afraid of people like me with a beard. I look suspicious to them. Discrimination is all around us. We live it every day. It's become a habit. It's in the air."
He continued: "I grew up in France, yet I speak of God and religion. I have a double culture. I belong to both. We should stop the labeling."
Rezzoug, the caretaker, said he has seen local youths struggle with deep personal conflicts caused by their dual cultures. "They go to the mosque and pray," he said. "But this is France, so they also drink and party."
"They also are out to prove to their parents and brothers and uncles they can't take it any more," he said. "They're burning the places where they play, where they sit -- they're burning their own playpens."
Le Blanc-Mesnil is not a community where youths aspire to spend their lives. There is none of the glamour that most of the world associates with Paris, just a 25-minute drive or train ride away. It is an industrial city of boxy apartment complexes and strip malls. In a nation where unemployment has hovered at 10 percent this year, the rates are here four to five times as high among people under 25.
"We feel rejected, compared to the kids who live in better neighborhoods," said Nasim, a chunky 16-year-old with braces and acne. "Everything here is broken down and abandoned. There's no place for the little kids to go."
As on most Saturday afternoons, there was little for Nasim or his friends to do. They sauntered among the older youths who spent the late afternoon hanging out on street corners or the sidewalks in front of coffee shops.
Several of the older youths fingered pockets bulging with plastic packets of hashish for sale or trade. As they read local newspaper accounts of their previous night's exploits, they began discussing Saturday night's plans with more of an air of boredom than a commitment to a cause.
"We don't have the American dream here," said Rezzoug, as he surveyed the clusters of young men. "We don't even have the French dream here."