Riots Rattle Ancient French Town

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 15, 2009

POITIERS, France -- Under a bright autumn sun, the narrow lanes of ancient Poitiers teemed with families enjoying a lighthearted celebration of street theater. Suddenly, a knot of black-clad youths emerged from the crowd. They donned plastic masks, pulled up their hoods and started destroying everything in sight.

In what police described as an organized attack, the band shattered store windows, damaged the facades of several banks and spray-painted anarchist slogans on government buildings. Aiming even at the historical heritage of this comfortable provincial town 200 miles southwest of Paris, they fractured a plaque commemorating Joan of Arc's interrogation here in 1429 and -- in Latin -- scrawled "Everything belongs to everybody" on a stone baptistery that is one of the oldest monuments in Christendom.

The wanton destruction, which lasted for about 90 minutes early Saturday evening, was a dramatic reminder that France and other European nations, below their surface of stability and wealth, harbor tiny bands of ultra-leftist activists who still want to combat the market economies and parliamentary democracies on which the continent's well-being is founded.

"We will destroy your morbid world," one of the Poitiers protesters sprayed-painted on a wall near the city's landmark Notre Dame Cathedral.

Based on politics of violent rejection dating from the 1970s, the groups have been largely overshadowed in recent years by the more mundane violence of big-city drug gangs and disaffected immigrant ghettos, particularly in France. But they have surfaced recently in dramatic ways. French, German and other European ultra-leftists set fire to a customs shed and a hotel during the NATO summit in Strasbourg in April, and others launched violent attacks that marred an otherwise joyous music festival this summer in the streets of Paris.

The outburst in Poitiers was particularly shocking to its 90,000 residents, most of whom traditionally regard themselves as comfortably distant from the political tensions of Paris and the world. Shop owners and local political leaders voiced astonishment that police were caught by surprise and wondered who the violent protesters were and where they came from.

"It's really strange," said Christine Simon, whose little shop hawking New Age spirituality lost a display window and several art works in the rampage. "Here in Poitiers, there is never anything like this. I don't mean nothing ever happens. We have a cultural life and all. But nothing like this."

Mayor Alain Claeys, from the opposition Socialist Party, suggested to Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux that his ministry's intelligence agents should have picked up signals that the ultra-leftists were planning something. Joining many other Poitiers residents, he said those who organized the destruction must have come from outside the city, perhaps even outside France.

"Extremism and violence struck brutally in the heart of the regional capital," said former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who represents the area in the Senate. He vowed to meet with Hortefeux to "draw conclusions from these sad and unacceptable events."

Police acknowledged to local reporters that they had no idea who the ringleaders were. They took 18 people into custody Saturday evening and Sunday and, in a show of firmness, put eight of them on immediate trial Monday. Defense lawyers argued the eight were just locals swept up in the movement, however, and judges sentenced only three to prison terms, from one to four months.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's political coalition, the Union for a Popular Movement, urged harsh punishment for the rioters despite the difficulty in finding who was responsible. "Prosecutions must be organized, and we expect the strongest possible firmness from the courts," said Frédéric Lefebvre, the coalition spokesman.

Sarkozy, a former interior minister known as an advocate of no-nonsense law enforcement, repeatedly has urged tougher tactics to combat crime and suburban unrest. He was elected in 2007 in part because his hard line captured support from voters who traditionally had cast their ballots for the far-right National Front.

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