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.
Some political analysts said government officials didn't focus on the severity of the violence in its first days because many were on vacation or at their country houses celebrating the All Saints' Day holiday. As they returned to their Paris offices the following Monday, the rioting was gaining momentum across the suburbs.
Still, President Jacques Chirac did not speak out publicly until Monday evening, the 12th night of violence. He made a three-minute appearance and vowed tough action against the perpetrators.
Chirac, whose lackluster performance in office and recent health problems have cemented his status as a lame-duck president, allowed two rival ministers -- Prime Minister Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- to engage in public bickering over the proper course of action. Both aspire to replace Chirac in the 2007 presidential election.
Sarkozy inflamed the rioters by calling them "scum." Many of the youths have said they won't stop the burning until Sarkozy is removed from office.
Some analysts blame the government's weak responses on an attitude of diffidence toward communities that most French officials and middle- and upper-class residents never see. Unlike in the United States, where most low-income housing projects are located in inner cities, French subsidized housing was built in the suburbs, out of sight of the historic and charming town centers that draw millions of tourists each year.
The politicians in Paris, as well as many Parisians, feel immune to the rioting in the suburbs and elsewhere, said Guillaume Parmentier, who heads the French Center on the United States, a Paris-based research organization. "So a few cars are burning in the suburbs," he said. "This is the sort of thing that happens; it's very unpleasant, but you can't put a policeman behind every car."
Such an attitude of indifference has alienated the young men and boys throwing homemade gasoline bombs. Immigration expert Bertossi said many of the targets of the violence "are the symbols of the institution -- schools, the police, the firemen."
In the highly competitive French education system, most students in the poor suburbs of Paris and other major cities go to schools that are decrepit and crowded. Dropout rates are high.
Villepin said Monday the government planned to restore some of the budget cuts made to academic institutions in the country's poorest communities and would increase tutors and scholarships for students in those areas. He provided no details, however. He also said it was "the responsibility of parents to calm" their children who were taking part in the violence.
"It's no wonder these kids are protesting when their future looks like a dead end," said Michel Narbonne, 59, who sells stamps to collectors at a Paris street market. "They are frustrated, like the majority of French people. These kids are doing what most French people have wanted to do for the past 10 years."