On the broad concrete slab that is the main plaza in Reynerie, a neighborhood of Arab and black African heritage in this high-tech city, teenage boys with fibrous muscles debated with housewives Tuesday afternoon about the riots that have swept the neighborhood and much of France.
"You're scaring the children," said one stocky woman, pushing her wide-eyed 3-year-old girl out front as an exhibit. "We also have to live here, and we can't go on like this."
"I am not a terrorist, I'm a victim," responded one of the young men.
At about 7:30 p.m., the police arrived and all debate ended. Riot squads dressed in black sealed two streets and a helicopter swooped around shining spotlights on the crowd. Molotov cocktails and stones filled the air, and a truck was set aflame. Soon, tear gas floated through the parking lots and halls of the high-rise apartment blocks that make up these faceless suburban neighborhoods.
So went the latest installment of riots in Toulouse, a southwestern city that is one of the homes of Airbus, the European commercial aviation juggernaut. None of the people interviewed on the plaza offered a clear view of where the 13 days of unrest across the country was going. Their words reflected deep agreement that the community faced heartless discrimination, but divisions on how to fight it.
Unrest also continued in other parts of France on Tuesday night. In Paris, a police spokesman reported that by 9:30 p.m., 76 vehicles had been set on fire across the country. Fifty-seven people were arrested. Three towns -- Amiens, Orleans and Savigny-sur-Orge -- declared midnight curfews, using authority that the French cabinet granted in a special meeting Tuesday by invoking a half-century-old state-of-emergency law.
The violence Monday night and early Tuesday was down from the previous night, measured by the official count of burned vehicles: 1,173, compared with 1,408. That gave some French officials hope that the worst was over.
In Reynerie, residents said that the violence was driven by deep social problems: discrimination against immigrants and citizens of France of non-European origin, and the hordes of unemployed youth among them.
Chawki, a wiry 18-year-old of Algerian descent, said the message of the destruction was clear, if not the outcome. "This is the language they understand," he said, referring to the government. "They know the conclusions to draw. We are sick of being discriminated against. That is all."
Young men and boys made up the core of the crowd on the square, which sometimes numbered a few hundred. It looked like a hip-hop convention -- plenty of loose athletic outfits and sweatshirts and baseball caps worn at angles. Daily life also persisted. Old men carried fresh baguettes home for the evening meal and vendors peddled contraband cigarettes after stores closed at sunset.
One woman confronted the youths, calling for an end to the violence. She had lived in Bab el-Oued, a tough district of Algiers, during the heavy political violence of the 1990s, she said, and she did not want to live with terrorism in France. "We must get together and march on city hall, peacefully. Why burn our own cars here?" she asked.
The young men were unmoved. "I lived in Bab el-Oued, too," replied one of them, calling himself a victim and displaying a bruise on his shoulder that he said was caused by a tear gas canister fired by French police. "Who would even speak about demonstrations if we did not do what we are doing?"
No viable means of organizing a peaceful march was evident in Reynerie. No central or town government representative appeared at the square. It was unclear who if anyone composed the leadership of the men who later would throw the stones and firebombs.
Shaggy-haired representatives of the Communist Party handed out leaflets condemning the central government for authorizing curfews. Their statement called for better schools and job training.
Djillali Lahiani, an Algerian-born member of the Toulouse city government, said he came in a private capacity to observe. "This is going nowhere," he said. "It's an expression without program. These young people are surrounded by maximum symbols of progress. Airbus, for instance. They are proud of it, yet they don't feel part of it. . . . They view the future and see nothing."
Demands for the resignation of Nicolas Sarkozy, the tough-talking interior minister, were about the only specific demand expressed in the plaza. When rioting first broke out, Sarkozy referred to rioters as "scum."
"Partly, the issue is not politics, but the treatment of a whole group of French, and Sarkozy symbolizes it," said Lahiani.
No Islamic-based grievance was evident in the crowd Tuesday. There were no imams, no beards, no chants about the Koran. A cluster of wiry boys scoffed at the notion of a radical Islamic plot to destabilize France.
"Of course, that is what the politicians would like everyone to think, to scare people," one of them said.
He covered his head with a scarf to avoid a camera from TVE, the Spanish television network. Few people were willing to give their names for publication, citing fear of identification and arrest by the police.
Many were angry at the French news media. One teenager said youths were being depicted as "animals." At one point, the TVE correspondent was interviewing a woman who complained about the arrest of her son, saying he had done nothing wrong. A man accused the Spanish of racist reporting and warned the mother against speaking. Mohamed bin Hamida, a member of SOS Racism, a nongovernmental organization that fights discrimination, rushed to intervene.
"If the reporters wanted to tell lies about us, they would have stayed downtown," bin Hamida said. "Everyone should speak his mind." The hostile intruder backed off.
The conversations in the plaza appeared to be breaking up. Several of the young men predicted that nothing more was going to happen. Then a violent choreography began. The blue lights of police cars appeared down a street and the men shifted toward it like the proverbial moths to a flame
Quickly, there was a real flame: a truck with its cabin on fire. Then firebombs lit up the ground near some police trucks. The men who had been talking in the plaza suddenly all donned masks, some of them black ski masks, some simple cloths or scarves. Some picked up boulders and smashed them onto the pavement to make toss-friendly stones.
The men clustered at one end of the street. Then police officers with helmets and shields moved in from the other side to occupy the plaza. But the gendarmes left two escape routes to either side, and the rioters quickly dispersed. For a while, at least, the neighborhood was calm again.