Workers under police escort laid cinder blocks Thursday to seal the charred entrance of a burned-out kindergarten in Reynerie, the most restive neighborhood in Toulouse during France's two-week wave of rioting.
A few miles away, Toulouse Mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc toured a new cultural and social center in Fontaine Lestang, a district of Toulouse untouched by the violence. The pristine building, with wall-size sound systems and special music rooms, was meant, in his words, "to bring city hall closer to the people."
A reporter asked him whether he planned to visit Reynerie in the course of the day, in view of the school firebombing Wednesday night. "No, I visited out there yesterday," the mayor replied.
Actually, he hadn't gone to Reynerie but to Bellefontaine, a nearby gentrifying neighborhood. His assistant mayor for the area, Jean-Pierre Lloret, explained: "We are not going to enter the debate at present. We will not talk under pressure. We must wait until there is total serenity. In any case, the troublemakers are young, very young people with whom it would be difficult to talk."
Close up, Toulouse offers a flavor of the misunderstandings and disagreements that separate French authorities and the rioters, many of them young men of African heritage, who have burned cars and buildings night after night in minority enclaves across the country.
Toulouse is a prosperous city in southwestern France that is the headquarters of Airbus, the European plane manufacturer. For all its high-tech sheen and the charm of its city center, Toulouse also has, like so many other French cities, bleak underclass suburbs that erupted in anger during the past two weeks.
To travel from central Toulouse, with its elegant buildings of pinkish brick, to Reynerie, with its gray slabs of apartment blocks, is to traverse two mutually exclusive worlds. And since the rioting, the city and suburbs have drifted further apart.
Residents of Reynerie, part of the sprawling Mirail district southeast of downtown, say discrimination is the problem. They say city leaders ignored them even before the rioting, and the young arsonists have taken it upon themselves to expel symbols of authority from the neighborhood. "The government doesn't want us, we don't want it," said Abou, a young, unemployed aeronautical engineer in Reynerie who declined to provide his last name.
People at city hall reject discrimination as a cause of the problems, instead blaming recently arrived immigrants. "They come here, know nothing of Toulouse, make demands and create problems," Lloret said. Such contrasting attitudes throw into question the budding notion in France that the riots will change the country.
The riots have also caused debate over whether France's official view of itself as a nation without racial prejudice or discrimination is obsolete. Some commentators speculate that France will soon move toward the approach of the United States and Britain, which recognize distinct ethnic minorities and their cultural differences and generally acknowledge racial discrimination. In France, affirmative action programs do not exist, on the grounds that they are not needed.
Lloret said the recent events were only a fever that would pass. "This is not the first time there," he said, referring to a week of riots in 1998 in Mirail after police killed a 17-year-old suspected of car theft.
"If there is another pretext, some mistake, it will happen all over again," Lloret said. The past two weeks of turbulence erupted after two teenagers were electrocuted at a power substation in suburban Paris while avoiding a police checkpoint.
Municipal police do not patrol Reynerie, even during the day, when markets and stores are open. "It is not their duty to restore order," Lloret explained. "Our police handle traffic and thefts, you know, things like that."
The national gendarmerie and riot police are the only forces of order, and they come only at night. City employees are refusing to work at their offices in the district because of the danger. Bus drivers have begged off routes in Mirail, and the subway closes before sundown.
Lloret said sorting things out with the community is the role of nongovernmental social welfare associations. But scenes in Reynerie this past week showed that such groups have a fight on their hands.
On Wednesday, groups of social workers called for an outdoor meeting to appeal for peace. A couple of young men began to harangue the workers. "Go home. You're white. You don't belong here. You have nice jobs. Go back to France," one said. The young men cheered as a stolen car buzzed by, its passengers on their way to torch the kindergarten.
"This confrontation was a shock," said Silviane Becker, a member of the Mirail Social Education Association. "They insult us because the ones they really want to insult are absent."
Members of leftist opposition parties visiting Reynerie on Thursday got a similarly hostile reception. People in the crowd in Reynerie's central square yelled that the parties only show up when there is trouble.
Abou explained the mood: "We want communication, but not just token. We want apologies, and we want to talk about serious problems." He defended the torching of the kindergarten as a symbolic expulsion of France from Reynerie.
At the same time, he called for dialogue. He said that municipal police should resume normal contact with the people.
The local nongovernmental groups tried to issue a joint anti-violence statement with the residents but were shouted down.
"I don't think we are in favor of violence," said Fatima Boukagra, a 30-year resident of Toulouse and a French citizen. "We just don't want to be manipulated in the name of peace."
Boukagra had her own demands: that authorities apologize for an injury to her 21-year-old son. He lost his right hand three days ago when he picked up a stun grenade to throw it away from a crowd of people, Boukagra and witnesses said.
"They treat us like dogs," she said. "When my son got hurt, not even an ambulance came. Kids took him to the hospital." She added that he had gone to the street out of curiosity, not to riot. He worked as a janitor in the subway.
"What's he going to be able to do now? Nothing!" she said. "I want justice. But do you think there will be an investigation? No. We are not part of this city and country."