France Beefs Up Response to Riots

Police handcuff a suspect in Essonne. After 12 days of riots, curfews are in effect and about 9,500 police officers have been deployed.
Police handcuff a suspect in Essonne. After 12 days of riots, curfews are in effect and about 9,500 police officers have been deployed. (By Arnaud Journois -- Maxppp Via Zuma Press)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 8, 2005

PARIS, Nov. 7 -- In a television address to the nation Monday night, France's prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, announced his government's new plan to curb riots that have spread to 300 French towns and cities in the last 12 days: 1,500 additional police officers on the streets, local curfews, parental intervention and more educational opportunities for students in affected suburbs.

Even as Villepin spoke, another night of violence broke out, as young men in the southern city of Toulouse set fire to a city bus and threw rocks at police officers. In the Paris suburbs, where the unrest began, rioters set fire to a junior high school and a hospital.

Confronted by the most dramatic social uprising since 1968, the government of France remains largely helpless against gangs of angry youths. The response is being crafted by a lame-duck president and an interior minister and a prime minister who are slugging it out to replace him.

While many French leaders depict the rioters as simple criminals, political and social analysts and many French citizens see the fires that are burning across the country as reflecting a growing identity crisis in a nation where social policies have not kept up with rapidly changing profiles in religion, race and ethnicity.

"France is in a social and economic crisis," said Michelle Rosso, a 43-year-old music teacher from the town of Bagnolet in the northern suburbs of Paris, where the unrest has been most intense. "It's similar to the U.S. civil rights movement in the '60s. The integration policies of this country clearly do not work."

Most of the rioters are the French-born children of immigrants from Arab and African countries. A large percentage are Muslim. Their parents' generation was invited to France as laborers who were expected to return home but didn't. The new generation is coming of age in the midst of France's worst economic slump in years and during a time when many in the country, which is culturally Christian but officially secular, are increasingly fearful of the growth of Islam inside its borders.

At present, the country has an estimated 6 million Muslims, most of African descent. The fear of losing France's traditional white European identity fueled French voters' rejection of the proposed European Union constitution last summer and has heightened French opposition to admitting Muslim Turkey into the E.U.

"The government hasn't really realized we're facing a major political crisis," said Patrick Lozes, a political activist and president of the Circle for the Promotion of Diversity in France. "The French social model is exploding."

In a country that has prided itself on its egalitarian social system, Lozes said, "black people and Arab people are not really considered to be from this country. They are considered an inferior group."

"People are shouting they want to be equal," said Christophe Bertossi, an immigration specialist at the French Institute for International Relations. "And the government is treating them as if they were criminals or terrorists."

Sunday night and Monday morning brought a new peak of violence, with an estimated 1,400 vehicles torched in Paris and other French cities. Several cars were burned in Brussels, where the E.U. is headquartered, and half a dozen in Berlin, raising concerns in other European capitals that the violence is spreading to their territory.

On Monday, a 61-year-old man died of injuries sustained last week when he was attacked while trying to extinguish a fire in trash bin. He was the first fatality since two Muslim teenagers were electrocuted in a power substation while trying to evade a police checkpoint on Oct. 27. That incident touched off the rioting.

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