Monday, November 07, 2005


Word of the deaths spread quickly through Clichy-sous-Bois, a grim collection of housing projects an hour by train and bus from the center of Paris. Two teenage boys had been electrocuted while trying to hide near a transformer the night of Oct. 27. Rumor said they were running from police. Soon, dozens of angry young men came from the soulless high-rises looking for cops to fight and cars to burn on streets named, as it happens, after heroes of French culture: boulevard Emile Zola, allee Albert Camus, rue Picasso. Dead white men. "It's Baghdad here," the rioters shouted. Night after night last week, rage spread through the ghettos that ring Paris, then beyond to every corner of France. When a tear-gas canister exploded near a mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois on the fourth violent evening, a new cry went up. "Now this is war," said one of the vandals. Others cried "jihad." It was neither, in fact, and Paris—the capital known to tourists—was not burning. But by using cell-phone text messages to coordinate their incendiary flash-mobs, rioters in the city's suburbs managed to burn thousands of cars, as well as buses, warehouses and stores. More than 200 people were arrested and there were many injuries, some serious, even if by last weekend no one had been killed. (The Los Angeles riots of 1992, by contrast, took the lives of more than 50 people.) What really shook the French government, and badly, was its inability to contain the metastasizing anger. Decades of French policies intended to force the integration of immigrants and their children—and children's children—into French society had failed, and no Plan B was apparent. Fears also grew that in the age of terror, rage like this could swell the ranks of radical Islamists in the heart of Europe. The first and most obvious casualty was the reputation of French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. He's been angling for the presidency in 2007, posturing as France's most confident can-do politician. During the first days of violence, Sarkozy denounced the gangs burning cars as "scum" and told them in effect to bring it on. They did with a vengeance, and didn't stop. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who is Sarkozy's main rival, reined him in publicly. Prodded by President Jacques Chirac, the two of them eventually tried to show a united front behind the slogan "Firmness and justice." That didn't work either. The greatest challenge in the days to come is to keep the violent fringe from winning even wider sympathy. There are more than 12 million people of Muslim origin in Western Europe, roughly half of them in France. Many have adapted easily and well to European life. But constant tensions and deep resentments do remain, especially among those left behind in blighted communities that others managed to escape. In a report issued just days before the violence broke out, the French government counted 751 neighborhoods deemed "sensitive urban zones." Most of the people there have roots in Africa and Islam. Average unemployment is 21 percent, more than twice the national average, and rising. Among men under 25, the rate jumps to 36 percent. Disconnected from their past in the Muslim world and uncertain about their future in Europe, they've come to see themselves as citizens of nothing but "Neuf-trois," 93, the postal code for the outer edges of the Paris urban area. The alienation and anger in these neighborhoods is not new. Riots broke out in the 1980s and 1990s, prompting new government programs supposed to bring hope to the projects. But as memories of the violence faded, so did funding. Outreach programs have been cut and neighborhood-based police have been pulled out. "We haven't paid attention for such a long time, there is a sense of abandonment," says French Sen. Dominique Voynet, who represents the main conflict zone. In Clichy-sous-Bois, where it all began, calm was restored after the fourth night by young men from the local mosque. The government was thankful and hopes similar measures can work elsewhere. Some analysts are wary. Calling on mosques to restore order "validates the postulate that Islam is the answer to everything," says Dounia Bouzar, author of several books on French Muslims. Yet without the mosque, it would seem, the only option for the people along allee Albert Camus is what the author of "The Stranger" called "the tender indifference of the world."