France's Youth Battles Also Waged on the Web

By Molly Moore and Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 10, 2005

PARIS, Nov. 9 -- The call to arms has been circulating on French blogs and text messages for days: "All the housing projects should rise. The wait is over. Friday, Nov. 11, a meeting under the Eiffel Tower. At 2 p.m. Show up, it's important."

"We are aware of it and we're taking this very seriously," said one Paris police official, who asked that his name not be used because of a national police edict prohibiting local police authorities from discussing the crisis with the news media. He added of the war cry, "We don't quite know what to make of it."

While riot police are attempting to curb the gangs that have been setting fire to cars and buildings in France's poor suburban communities for the past two weeks, French officials have only just begun the struggle to control a more amorphous battleground: cyberspace.

Internet blogs have become so vicious and intense that police have opened investigations against two teenagers for inciting violence on radio station-sponsored blogs. Hackers took over the Web site of the northern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the first violence began Oct. 27, and dispatched thousands of fake e-mails announcing the mayor's resignation. Local gangs have used text messaging on their cell phones as early warning systems to alert members about the movements of riot police during operations in their communities, gang members said in interviews.

"It is the first time France has experienced a real crisis in the age of the Internet," said Bruno Patino, co-author of a newly published book, "The Press without Gutenberg," about the Internet's emerging dominance over traditional media outlets. "And it's easy to see how the Internet can increase the momentum of the crisis."

French law enforcement officials say they are investigating possible use of the Internet for coordinating attacks among some of the 300 cities across the nation where the violence has spread like an epidemic. But Web monitors and sponsors said the greatest impact of the Internet has been as a forum conveying messages that incite further violence.

"The comments are very, very violent on both sides -- by the people who are calling for the rioting and the people who are anti-riot and are very radical in their ideas," said Stephane Dreyfus, a member of the Web team at France's daily La Croix newspaper. "We find it quite worrying."

The Web site of Skyrock, a French radio station popular among young people, shut down its most provocative blogs this week after the exchanges became increasingly vile and bloggers used the forum to call for a violent gathering at the Eiffel Tower on Friday. According to police, other bloggers have urged an assembly Saturday on the Champs-Elysee, France's most famous boulevard.

"God bless France, because war is about to begin," wrote a blogger called Nour.

"The hate will turn around," countered another who signed his name as Raslebo. "I am sick of these bearded fascists."

In recent days, the tone and description of the crisis on the Internet has started to diverge dramatically from the version on television and in the traditional news media. The Internet was being flooded with messages inciting violence Wednesday as the country's largest television network announced that it would no longer report the number of burned cars, in an effort to cool the competition between gangs.

Figures released by the national police indicate that the number of vehicle arsons has declined and that the violence has subsided in some areas, including the northern suburbs of Paris where the rioting was set off by the electrocution of two teenagers who hid in a power substation to avoid potential harassment at a police checkpoint. The Interior Ministry said 617 cars were burned Tuesday night compared with 1,100 the previous night. Incidents were reported in 116 towns, compared with 226 the night before, it reported. Although the government has imposed a state of emergency that allows local officials to impose curfews, only a handful of cities have done so, including Nice and Cannes on the Mediterranean coast.

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