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Wed Nov 9 15:16:05 PST 2005
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Nov 9th 2005
Rioting across France has forced the government to dust off a
decades-old law on curfews, but the emergency measures have been widely
criticised. The unrest, led by the disaffected children of immigrants,
is the biggest challenge to the state's authority since the student
riots of the 1960s
WHEN riots erupt in one of the biggest countries of the supposedly
stable European Union (EU), it can be embarrassing for the government
concerned. When those riots go on night after night for the best part
of two weeks, only to continue getting worse, it starts to become truly
alarming. On Tuesday November 8th, France suffered its thirteenth
straight night of urban unrest, despite the introduction of emergency
measures in an effort to halt the violence. What started with a few
disaffected youths throwing rocks and burning cars on the outskirts of
Paris has turned into a national social and political crisis.
The trouble began on October 27th, when two North African teenagers
were electrocuted in the shabby Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois,
apparently while fleeing the police. There followed a week of
night-time riots in areas with large African and Arab communities in
and around the capital. At the weekend, the government's worst fears
came true when the "shock wave" reached the rest of the country, in the
words of Michel Gaudin, head of the national police. Among the towns
and cities hit by unrest were Marseilles, Lens, Saint-Etienne,
Toulouse, Metz, Nice, Cannes, Lille and Strasbourg, home of the
The worst violence so far was seen on Sunday and Monday, when a total
of around 2,500 vehicles were torched, hundreds of rioters were
arrested, and scores of police suffered injuries. Monday also saw the
first death as a result of the unrest, that of a 61-year-old man who
had been beaten by rioters on Friday.
On Monday evening, Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, announced
new measures aimed at curbing the violence, in effect declaring a state
of emergency. Local administrations were granted the power to impose
curfews, not widely seen in France since the 1950s. Mr de Villepin also
said that 1,500 police reserves would be called up, to assist the 8,000
officers already deployed in riot-hit areas. However, he added that it
was too early to send in the army, as requested by at least one police
organisation. He promised to ease social frustration by accelerating
programmes for urban renewal and for helping young people in poor
areas. The cabinet approved the new measures on Tuesday. Later that
day, Mr de Villepin told parliament: "France is wounded. It cannot
recognise itself in its streets."
Tuesday night saw a drop in the level of violence, with 617 vehicles
set ablaze and around 200 arrests, though it was not clear whether this
was due to the new measures or to the unrest cooling off as rioters saw
that they had made their point. Local officials are taking no chances:
on Wednesday, emergency measures were imposed in 38 urban zones, towns
and cities, including Parisian suburbs. The centre of the capital has
been largely trouble-free.
The unrest has unnerved France's neighbours, with some issuing travel
warnings to their citizens. There are also fears that the violence
could spread to poor immigrant communities in other EU countries, and
this has helped to push down the value of the euro. A number of cars
were torched on Monday night in Brussels, the Belgian capital.
The French government has seemed at times to be at a loss over how to
react to the violence, which is arguably the most serious challenge to
its authority since the student riots that rocked Paris in 1968. In the
days after the unrest began, ministers held a series of meetings to
discuss "sensitive urban zones", but these did little to reassure the
public or stop the violence. Meanwhile, President Jacques Chirac was
widely criticised for remaining silent. On Sunday, he finally called a
meeting of top security officials and addressed the public. "The
republic is completely determined to be stronger than those who want to
sow violence or fear," he said. "The last word must be from the law."
But while Mr Chirac promised arrest and punishment for rioters, he
added that "respect for all, justice and equal opportunity" were needed
to end the violence.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the parliamentary group of the opposition
Socialist Party, wrote in LE FIGARO, a daily, that "the least we can
say is that the government's response has been confused and weak."
Others have recalled wryly that Mr Chirac won the presidency in 1995
after promising to heal France's "social fracture".
Yet many of those involved in the rioting blame not the president but
his protege-turned-rival, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, for
exacerbating tensions. Mr Sarkozy favours a zero-tolerance approach to
urban violence, and in the days before the unrest began he angered many
by calling troublemakers in poor districts "dregs". But he has stood
firm, and he remains popular: an opinion poll published in LE PARISIEN
at the weekend gave him a nationwide approval rating of 57%.
Nevertheless, the crisis has raised questions about his ambition to
succeed Mr Chirac as president. It may yet damage him.
Mr de Villepin, who also has his eye on the presidency, initially took
a more diplomatic approach, consulting with the leaders of immigrant
communities and promising an "action plan" to address the anger of
those in run-down neighbourhoods. But his introduction of curfews has
been widely criticised as heavy-handed. By invoking a law passed in
1955 to quell unrest during Algeria's war of independence from France,
some argue, the prime minister is sending a message that the children
of immigrants will be treated no better than their parents and
France is home to Europe's biggest Muslim population--some 5m
strong--and most of the youths confronting the police are French-born
Muslims of Arab or African origin (though the children of Portuguese
immigrants and native French are also reported to have taken part). In
an effort to stop the violence and show it to be un-Islamic, one of
France's largest Muslim organisations has issued a FATWA, or religious
order, forbidding "any action that blindly hits private or public
property or could constitute an attack on someone's life."
With national unemployment of 10% and a poor Muslim population largely
confined to grim suburban housing estates, where joblessness can be two
to three times the national average, the ingredients for social
explosion have long been brewing. Many feel trapped on the estates,
which were built in the 1960s and 1970s to house waves of immigrant
workers. The government, they say, has promised equality but failed to
deliver. Some blame a labour market that is too rigid to create
sufficient jobs. Others point to the alienation caused by the hard-line
policing methods espoused by Mr Sarkozy.
Policies on culture and religion may also play a part. France's
integration model differs from the multiculturalism promoted in other
countries, notably Britain. In France, people can follow whatever way
of life they choose in private, within reason, but the state will not
sponsor them doing so. One result of this is that there are no
programmes to promote ethnic minorities out of their ghettos. The state
keeps officialdom and religion firmly apart, and Mr Chirac has banned
Muslim headscarves (as well as "conspicuous" crucifixes) in state
schools. Many Muslims have come to feel stigmatised since the terrorist
attacks of September 11th 2001, as France, along with other European
countries, has cracked down on suspected Islamic extremists. Their
sense of self-worth has hardly been boosted by growing French unease
over allowing Muslim countries like Turkey into the EU.
See this article with graphics and related items at http://www.economist.com/agenda/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5134685&fsrc=nwl
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