Paris suburbs on brink as riots leave 82 police injured
Massive police reinforcements, led by the Prime Minister in person, attempted to stem a violent revolt, bordering on guerrilla warfare, on the northern fringes of greater Paris.
Cars and shops were set alight late last night but there was nothing like the massed attacks on police seen on Monday evening when 82 officers were injured, some by pellets from shot-guns and light hunting rifles.
Appeals for calm, and an influx of hundreds of police, led by the Prime Minister François Fillon and Interior Minister Michèle Alliot- Marie, appeared to have imposed an uneasy calm in the early part of the evening in the town of Villiers-le-Bel, 12 miles north of Paris. The town's library and two schools were burned to the ground on Monday night in running battles between police and a mob of 150 to 200 youths.
Despite the apparent lull, fears remained high that the riots might erupt once again and spread to other poor and troubled suburbs of French cities, just as they did in November 2005. There were car burnings in several cities last night and an attempted arson attack on a library in a poor district of Toulouse, in south-west France. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was returning from a visit to China last night, will hold an emergency security meeting today.
The violence in Villiers-le-Bel, previously a leafy island of relative calm in the far northern suburbs of the capital, was sparked by the death of two teenage boys after an accident between their miniature scrambling bike and a police car.
A broadly similar incident, in another northern Paris suburb, ignited the riots two years ago, which spread to the poor districts of almost every town and city in France.
Why should an accident produce such an explosion of violence? Why should boys, aged 14 to 17, some as young as 10, burn a library? What depths of hatred and anger would persuade them to fire hunting rifles and shot-guns at the police?
Two years after the suburban riots of 2005, France finds itself confronted with all of the same questions. Or, perhaps, even harder questions.
The evidence of the second night's rioting – more than 80 policemen injured by shotgun and airgun pellets, including four seriously – suggests that the level of urban violence has ratcheted up alarmingly. Few guns were used during the three weeks of nationwide riots in 2005.
On Monday night, the youths, mostly teenagers, but with some older leaders in their 20s, attacked the police head on. In 2005, there were thousands of incidents of arson but few direct confrontations.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the young people from the tower blocks of the ZAC – "concerted redevelopment zone" – on the edge of Villiers-le-Bel are convinced that Larami, 16, and Mouhsin, 15, were deliberately rammed by a patrolling police car.
According to the authorities, all the evidence from independent eye-witnesses points to a simple road accident. The two boys – riding without helmets on an off-road, miniature, scrambling bike – roared out of a side-street in front of the patrol car. The policemen tried to help them and called for medical help before retreating from a menacing mob, police say.
Part of the problem is that the police – and the then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy – made similar dismissive comments after two teenage boys died in an electricity sub-station at Clichy-sous-Bois while fleeing police in late October 2005. It later emerged that the boys, innocent of any crime, had been pursued by police and the officers had abandoned them in the sub-station, knowing that they were in danger.
A much larger part of the problem is that a state of warfare now exists between the police and young people in the poor, multi-racial suburbs. For them it is inconceivable that a fatal accident involving a police-car could have been an "accident". Amina, 28, was visiting the impromptu shrine to the boys where they died. "Yes, of course it was probably an accident but try telling that to the other boys here," she said. "This is not an especially violent place. When the police come here, it is only to make trouble, to harass and insult the boys and young men. Even I have to ask myself: what were the police doing here on Sunday?"
Even politicians from his own centre-right party are pointing to a decision taken by M. Sarkozy as interior minister in 2002 as the source of much of the increased anger in the banlieues. M. Sarkozy abolished the local police units in the suburbs and replaced them with flying squads, including units of the CRS riot police. Hugues Portelli, centre-right mayor of Ermont, close to Villiers le Bel, said yesterday: "We need to have the local police back... in my town we know very well that there is no point in calling in some CRS units. They only provoke a fight."