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."
The town of 27,000 residents has 50 ethnic and religious groups and an unemployment rate of about 40 percent, he said. "Everyone says everything is possible, but not for these guys."
Many of the apartment houses have absentee owners who are renting each unit to as many as four families, Lotterie said. "Some rent out their kitchens, so you can imagine how people live there."
"I was sad" about the violence, said a local 12-year-old, Mathew, who recounted hearing explosions and going to the library, where he sometimes did homework, while it was still ablaze. "My parents weren't sad -- they were a little shocked," he added, saying there was nothing for him to do at home. "Now they won't know what to do with me."
In the area around the library, the streets were littered Tuesday with shattered glass, crumbled rock and other debris left from Monday's clashes between police and youths. A few youths walked around the library Tuesday, occasionally throwing rocks at outsiders.
Shop windows in some parts of town were smashed; burned-out vehicles were scattered along roadsides.
Many white residents of the town appeared to be taking the violence with a sense of resignation. G¿rard Jean, a town firefighter who was comforting a friend inside her ransacked beauty salon, said getting angry wouldn't help. "I feel sorry. If we get angry, we'll be like the kids in the street."
Photocopied pictures of the two dead youths were taped on many shop windows, street signs and doorways. "We love you," said a note under the picture of Larami Samoura, 16. On the picture of Moushin Souhelli, 15, was written: "Deceased 25/11/07. Died for nothing."
The deaths are under investigation. Police said the youths were riding an unregistered motorbike, without helmets, and crashed into the police car at high speed. Some residents and relatives of the youths said police left the scene too quickly and failed to help the injured teenagers.
Patrice Ribeiro, deputy general secretary of Synergie, the police union, said in a telephone interview that the two officers in the car had to leave the scene "as soon as possible" because "groups of guys ran towards the police car and wanted to lynch" them.
More than 100 police officers were injured -- five seriously -- in pitched street fights here and in five other communities north of Paris on Sunday and Monday nights, Ribeiro said.
About 80 cars were set afire Monday night, he said.
"There were rifle shots the first evening of violence," and Monday night "was worse," he said. "We're witnessing a climate of insurrection. We're now dealing with urban guerrillas, with people hiding in groups, throwing projectiles when night falls."
Prime Minister Fran¿ois Fillon and Interior Minister Mich¿le Alliot-Marie toured the town Tuesday. "Those who shoot at police are criminals, and they will be pursued as such," Fillon told reporters.
Sarkozy, who is in China, was to return to France on Wednesday and hold security meetings in the morning, his office said.
"The kids have one frozen idea about the police. The police are just the devil, and there's no solution," said Pierre Tap¿, pastor at a local Baptist church who moved to the town from Ivory Coast six years ago. On the other hand, when police see the young people, they see only black and immigrant youths, even though many are French, he said. "The responsibility for the situation has to be shared. The kids are at fault, and so are the police."
Correspondent Molly Moore and researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris contributed to this report.