Pall of Rioting Greets Sarkozy After China Trip

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 29, 2007

PARIS, Nov. 28 -- President Nicolas Sarkozy received no celebratory homecoming when he returned from Beijing on Wednesday with $30 billion in new business deals between France and China.

Instead, just hours after landing in Paris, he stood at the hospital bedside of Capt. Jean-Francois Illy, who was attacked with an iron pipe during the three nights of suburban street violence sparked by the deaths of two teenagers.

"So that things are very clear: What has happened is absolutely unacceptable," Sarkozy said during his visit to the hospital in Eaubonne, just outside Paris. "It is not something we can tolerate, no matter how dramatic the deaths of these two youngsters on a motorbike may be."

The two teenagers died in a collision with a police cruiser Sunday night.

Many of Sarkozy's critics noted that he said nothing about the circumstances that fed the outburst of arson and street skirmishes with riot police.

"Seeing Sarkozy go to Eaubonne as soon as he gets off his plane from China is a strong image, but it is only an image," Gilbert Roger, mayor of the suburban town of Bondy, near the scenes of this week's violence, said in a telephone interview. "In reality, nothing has been done to change the situation in the suburbs. The fact that a motorcycle accident fires up violent riots proves that nothing was solved."

Sarkozy did reach out to the families of the two teenagers, meeting with relatives at his Paris offices, French news media reported.

It has been a tough few weeks for France and its president. A transit strike paralyzed travel across the country for nine days, ending last Friday. Two days later, the arson and violence erupted in Paris's northern suburbs.

Sarkozy's energetic promises to innovatively fix France's social and economic ills have collided with two largely immovable states of mind: the expectations of French workers that they deserve special privileges from the state and the expectations of immigrants and first-generation French that they will be neglected by the state.

Though the strikes, aimed at blocking Sarkozy's efforts to reduce special pensions, have ended, the issues remain unresolved and unions are threatening to walk out again just before Christmas.

In the two years since riots broke out in more than 300 suburban towns and communities, government officials and government critics agree, little has been done to address the high unemployment and low social opportunities that are widely viewed here as the root cause of the violence in minority-heavy neighborhoods.

But Sarkozy's government and local mayors did respond tactically to the suburban violence more quickly this week than two years ago. Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, the former defense minister, ordered 1,000 police officers Tuesday night into the six communities where the worst violence occurred this week.

She said on Europe 1 radio Wednesday that the law enforcement presence would remain reinforced "as long as necessary."

The officers appeared to be successful in calming the violence Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but sporadic incidents flared in nearby towns where there were few police officers, according to law enforcement spokesmen. In the southern city of Toulouse, young men set fire to 20 cars and tried unsuccessfully to burn two libraries on Tuesday night, police said.

During the 2005 riots, Sarkozy fanned the violence when he said the suburbs should be cleaned with a "power hose" and referred to some residents as "scum." He then campaigned for president on promises of improving the standard of living for immigrants and their families, and he appointed minority women to head the justice and urban affairs ministries as symbols of his commitment to greater inclusion of disaffected communities.

Public confidence in Sarkozy's ability to solve the country's problems has slid from 63 percent in June to 53 percent in November, according to opinion polls conducted by TNS Sofres for Figaro Magazine. A survey to be released Thursday will likely show a continued decline in public satisfaction with the president, according to individuals familiar with the results.

"It's been six months since Sarkozy's government took over and we haven't seen anything," said Patrick Lozes, who heads the Council of Black Associations of France, an umbrella group that represents about 1,000 local and regional organizations. "There is no excuse for violence, but when you are unemployed and live in poor conditions without any hope, it is very likely that you can let your anger and rage override any reason."

A U.N. investigator is preparing a detailed report on discrimination against immigrant families in France.

For the past several weeks, Sarkozy's minister of urban affairs, Fadela Amara -- born to Algerian immigrants and raised in a public housing project -- has been touring the poor suburbs in preparation for issuing a proposal in January for improving conditions.

She has occasionally raised the hackles of other government ministers by speaking her mind on immigration issues, sometimes in ways that diverge from Sarkozy's positions.

But Roger, the Bondy mayor and a member of the opposition Socialist Party, is skeptical of Amara's efforts. "She tours France and meets with people, but she doesn't bring any answers to our problems," Roger said. "What is currently happening shows that we need more than nice words from the government. Things have to start changing tomorrow, not in five years."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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