Clashes in Paris Suburbs Recall Riots of Fall

Riot police face a burning police vehicle near the City Hall of Montfermeil, a poor suburb of Paris, where youths have attacked officers and torched cars for two nights.
Riot police face a burning police vehicle near the City Hall of Montfermeil, a poor suburb of Paris, where youths have attacked officers and torched cars for two nights. (Photos By Jacques Brinon -- Associated Press)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 1, 2006

PARIS, May 31 -- Small gangs of youths pelted riot police with rocks and set cars and garbage bins ablaze late Tuesday in a second night of unrest in the Paris suburbs, raising fears of a return of the disturbances that inflamed 300 French towns and suburbs last fall.

The violence of the last two nights -- in which youths attacked police cars, government buildings and riot police -- was sparked in part by mounting resentment toward the mayor of the northeastern Paris suburb of Montfermeil, who in recent weeks imposed a law prohibiting 15- to 18-year-olds from gathering in groups of more than three and requiring anyone under 16 to be accompanied by an adult on city streets after 8 p.m.

The French government last fall promised to improve living conditions and job opportunities in suburbs heavily populated by immigrant families and where unemployment is rampant, but little has been done and the government's main initiative -- a youth jobs bill -- ended with this spring's politically disastrous student demonstrations.

At the same time, police have said crime has increased in poor suburban neighborhoods, and frustration with the government has continued to fester.

"We have the painful sense that nothing has been fixed," Francois Hollande, leader of the opposition Socialist Party, said in an interview on France-2 Television.

At 9:30 Tuesday night, an estimated 15 young people threw rocks and projectiles at police patrolling an apartment complex area. At 11 p.m., youths tossed a makeshift explosive into a police car. The officers inside barely had time to escape before the vehicle exploded in flames.

Marauding youths set afire about a dozen private cars and torched numerous garbage bins in Montfermeil and the adjacent town of Clichy-sous-Bois, where last fall's three weeks of violence began when two teenagers were electrocuted as they tried to hide in a power substation. They believed police were chasing them.

Muhittin Altun, a third youth who survived with severe burns in that incident, was arrested Tuesday night on charges of throwing rocks at a police car. He was later released, according to French news media.

Six police officers were reported slightly injured and 13 youths were detained in Tuesday night's incidents.

In Montfermeil, a suburb of high youth unemployment and government-subsidized housing projects, young people have been growing increasingly angry at Mayor Xavier Lemoine's attempts to crack down on gang violence. Although a local court earlier this month overturned his effort to limit youth gatherings, he vowed to seek other measures.

On Monday, residents said, police roughed up a woman who protested police efforts to arrest her son, a suspect in the beating several weeks ago of a bus driver. Police ended up arresting both the mother and son, according to police.

Monday night, hooded youths hurled stones and other projectiles at Mayor Lemoine's house and at City Hall, and the police who responded were attacked with baseball bats. The clashes lasted three hours and seven police officers reportedly were injured.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose characterizations of rioters as "scum" inflamed last fall's violence, visited police officers who had responded to Monday night's incidents. "More than 100 hooligans set upon you -- masked and carrying weapons," he said. "We are confronting not a spontaneous revolt, but hooligans who have only a single purpose -- to create the most damage and injure as many people as possible."

Transportation Minister Dominique Perben, of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, described the incidents as a "reminder" of last year's violence.

"The question of the suburbs is a question for the entire political class," Perben told I-tele television. "We must have the courage to look things in the face."

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