In France, 'a Bomb Waiting for the Match'

Smoke billows as books smolder at a public library that was set on fire Monday night in Villiers-le-Bel, a Paris suburb.
Smoke billows as books smolder at a public library that was set on fire Monday night in Villiers-le-Bel, a Paris suburb. "People feel forgotten by the government powers, and it's the truth -- they have been forgotten by those in power," said a Socialist senator and former town mayor. (By Jacques Brinon -- Associated Press)

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By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France, Nov. 27 -- On the morning after a mob of angry youths torched the library in this small, immigrant-heavy town north of Paris during a second night of rioting, a group of local leaders stood outside the charred remains Tuesday and tried to make sense of what they saw.

"This was a symbol -- it's the Republic, the state, and so they threw molotov cocktails at city hall" and other government buildings, said Raymonde Le Texier, a Socialist senator who was mayor of Villiers-le-Bel for a decade. "People feel forgotten by the government powers, and it's the truth -- they have been forgotten by those in power."

Added town council member Serge Lotterie, 63, a retired postal worker also from the Socialist Party, "This has been a bomb waiting for the match to strike."

"These guys have nothing," he said of youths who went on a rampage after two teenagers were killed Sunday night when the motorbike they were riding collided with a police cruiser. "They stand in the streets at night with their hoods up and wait for things to happen, and so they close in on themselves and forget about integration."

Whether the violence in Villiers-le-Bel, seven miles north of Paris, will burn itself out or continue spreading to other minority and immigrant communities across Paris and France, as it did in 2005, has much of the country on edge.

Tuesday night, a police presence that French radio estimated at more than 600 officers was trying to maintain calm in Villiers-le-Bel, but scattered violence was reported and the regional government said 22 youths were detained. There were reports of unrest elsewhere, including car fires and a library burning in the southern city of Toulouse.

Two years ago, more than 8,000 cars were burned and 2,900 people arrested in three weeks of rioting that started after two minority teenagers were killed while fleeing police in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Paris suburb 10 miles southeast of Villiers-le-Bel; they were electrocuted after scrambling into a power substation.

People here and around the world took the 2005 riots as serving notice that minority and immigrant communities in France felt increasingly angry over discrimination, poor housing and few job opportunities. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then interior minister and is now France's president, was widely blamed for fueling the violence by publicly calling young rioters "scum." He subsequently promised a grand development plan for the suburbs to create dramatic improvements in employment, education and social programs.

The town has recently built a few new roads and added some park benches. There are three new community centers. The destroyed Louis Jouvet Library had recently added CD and DVD collections, now buried in blackened debris.

But residents say they have yet to see real improvements in the things that really matter, such as job training and other programs for youths.

"They say a lot is done, but in reality nothing is done," said Charlie Koissi, 31, a pharmaceutical assistant at a Paris research foundation who also works part time as a youth counselor and martial arts instructor in Villiers-le-Bel. He was born in France of parents from Ivory Coast.

"The young guys who live here have no future," said Lotterie, the town council member. "If you want to work in Charles de Gaulle" -- the nearby international airport -- "and if you're from Villiers-le-Bel, you're black and your name is Mohammed, there's no chance."

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