Urban Unrest Escalates in France as Riots Continue for 11th Straight Night

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Urban unrest escalated around France this weekend as youths continued rioting throughout the country for an eleventh straight night. Over 3,300 cars had been destroyed throughout the country, along with dozens of public buildings and private businesses. More than 300 people have been detained. We go to Paris to speak with Christian Science Monitor correspondent, Peter Ford. [includes rush transcript]

Urban unrest escalated around France this weekend as youths continued rioting throughout the country for an eleventh straight night. On Sunday, rioters opened fire on police in a working-class suburb of Paris, wounding ten officers. On Saturday night, rioting spread from the Paris suburbs into the more well-off districts. Also on Saturday, the rioting reached inside the French capital for the first time, with youths setting fire to more than 30 cars in central Paris. There were also reports of unrest in the cities of Cannes, Nice, Marseille, Lille and Strasbourg. By Sunday, 3,300 cars had been destroyed throughout the country, along with dozens of public buildings and private businesses. More than 300 people have been detained.

The New York Times reports the unrest is one of the most serious challenges to governmental authority in France in nearly 40 years. Many politicians have warned that the unrest may be coalescing into an organized movement, citing Internet chatter that is urging other poor neighborhoods across France to join in.

The violence started October 27 following the deaths of two teenagers–one of Mauritanian origin and the other of Tunisian origin–in the poor area of Clichy-sous-Bois. The two teens were electrocuted in a power grid while fleeing from police. The suburbs are home to a large West African and North African community, plagued by chronic unemployment and poverty. Unemployment in the neighborhoods is double and sometimes triple the 10 percent national average, while incomes are about 40 percent lower. France is home to the largest immigrant community in Europe, which makes up 10 percent of its 60 million population.

One of France’s largest Muslim organizations issued a fatwa condemning the violence saying, “It is strictly forbidden for any Muslim… to take part in any action that strikes blindly at private or public property or that could threaten the lives of others.”

Meanwhile, the French government has come under increasing fire for its handling of the situation. Opposition parties have called for Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to resign after calling the rioters “scum” last week. And French president Jacques Chirac was roundly criticized for not speak publicly about the unrest until yesterday after an emergency meeting with top members of his cabinet.

  • Jacques Chirac, French President, November 6, 2005.
  • Nicolas Sarkozy, French Interior Minister, November 6, 2005.

We go to Paris to get a report from the ground.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the French President, Jacques Chirac.

PRESIDENT JACQUES CHIRAC: I just met with the home security council. That’s the Prime Minister and the ministers concerned by matters of public order. We took a certain number of measures to further reinforce the actions of police and justice, because today the absolute priority is to reestablish security and public order.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking to reporters after the emergency meeting.

NICOLAS SARKOZY: We met the Prime Minister, who thanked the forces of law and order for the quality of their work last night. It was a difficult night. Even if the police displayed a lot of presence on the ground, they worked to the degree of control that allowed us to avoid many, many incidents. There were more than 300 arrests. The order given by the Prime Minister is the same that I have given. Those who carry out these actions will be held accountable in front of the law. The plan is in place, and the orders that have been given remain the same.

AMY GOODMAN: The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who called the young people “scum.” Joining us from Paris is Peter Ford, a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you start at the beginning, how this all began at the end of October?

PETER FORD: Well, as you say, there was an incident in which two young boys of immigrant descent in Clichy-sous-Bois were coming home from a football match they had been playing, and it seems that they spotted a police patrol. They were afraid of one of the identity checks the police go in for heavily in these districts, and everybody scampered, fled. Two of the boys — three of the boys hid in a substation. One was very badly injured. Two were killed. And the rumor spread that they had been chased into that substation by the police, the implication being, deliberately chased in, and that sparked the riot.

I think what that speaks to — although the preliminary reports suggest that they weren’t being chased at the time, but the fact that they climbed over a six-foot barbed wire wall to hide from police speaks volumes about the state of relations between young immigrant-origin youth and police in these sorts of places and also, generally, about how difficult it is to live in these quarters.

AMY GOODMAN: There have also been marches for peace in one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, thousands of silent marchers in Aulnay-sous-Bois chanted “No to violence! Yes to dialogue!” What kind of effect are they having?

PETER FORD: Well, not much at the moment. As you heard Nicolas Sarkozy and President Jacques Chirac saying a few minutes ago, they are concentrating on law and order. The first priority, they said, is to restore order. Only then will the government start thinking about longer-term plans to attack the root causes of this problem. Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister, is due to go on television in about six hours to announce some measures, but dialogue is a difficult thing to call for at the moment, because it’s hard to see with whom one would really talk. The young men who are carrying out the violence are not answering, frankly, or listening to any figures of authority in their communities for the moment. The mosques, the imams are preaching against violence, the local social workers are trying to get through to them, but so far, they haven’t had any effect and, certainly, none of these kids on the streets have any respect whatsoever for the government or for the police.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you talk about the anger that they feel, the whole issue of police? I mean, the beginning of this, the two young people who died as they were fleeing from police.

PETER FORD: Yes. Until recently, the police approach in these districts — as recently as two or three years ago — had been on what the previous socialist government called “community policing.” It was based on the idea that the individual policemen should know their areas better, they should get on better with the kids, they should not just be seen as repressive forces of law and order, but as agents of the state there to help the kids who were not involved in criminalities stay away from criminality, as well as punish those who were found to be guilty. That approach is not popular with Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, who is a very heavy law-and-order man.

And when you talk to young men in districts like Clichy-sous-Bois and the neighboring suburbs, their number one complaint is that they are constantly, constantly being asked for their papers by the police. They regard it as harassment. They’ll be hanging about in the lobbies of their apartment blocks, they say, and the police will come by and ask for their papers. The same policemen who asked for their papers a few hours ago will ask them for their papers again. And if they don’t have them, they are locked away at the police station for four hours, and their parents have to come and get them often before they’re allowed to go home.

Or, for example, the police will stop youth — and one man complained about this — and feel the hood on his sweatshirt, and if it’s sweaty, then he must have been running. And if he was running, he must have committed a crime. This is the sort of atmosphere that the boys themselves complain about. The police, on the other hand, say, of course, that they’re in extremely difficult and sensitive neighborhoods where there’s a lot of drug trafficking, there’s a lot of dealing in stolen goods of all descriptions, and that they are there to stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor. The issue of the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, calling the kids “scum,” saying that the government will wage a war without mercy against them.

PETER FORD: Well, Nicolas Sarkozy is a front-runner in the conservative UMP Party for the presidency when the elections are held in 2007. His chief rival is the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin. And Sarkozy is clearly angling here for extreme right-wing votes, as well as standard conservative right-wing votes. But Sarkozy is a bit of an anomaly in French politics. While he has taken this hard-line law-and-order position, he has also broken a lot of taboos in French politics as regards immigration. He argues in favor, for example, of positive discrimination to encourage the integration of immigrant youth into French society. Now that is absolutely abhorrent to most of the French establishment. He is —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean when you say “positive discrimination.” Are you talking about what we say in the United States as affirmative action?

PETER FORD: Yes, exactly, of deliberately setting aside quotas of jobs or places in schools, universities for disadvantaged immigrants. That runs directly counter to the French tradition of treating absolutely everybody equally. But, of course, that tradition is a myth. It’s enshrined in French ideas of equality, fraternity and liberty. But it’s certainly illusory if you come from one of these ghettos on the outskirts of Paris, and Sarkozy has recognized that. But at the same time he’s playing, if you like, both sides of the gallery. And his hard-line language is designed to attract support from elsewhere in the political spectrum. It doesn’t appear to be working that well. There was a poll released yesterday which showed that 50% of the French population don’t think his action against insecurity has been effective. But he still retains a positive image amongst 57% of French voters.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peter Ford, a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor. We’ll come back to him in Paris, riots throughout France now.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue for just a moment with Peter Ford in Paris, in France, where the riots continue. Peter Ford, the issue of — what is soft integration? And also, the level of employment and the conditions in these poorer areas of the suburbs, not only of Paris, but now spread all over the country.

PETER FORD: Well, it’s very striking when you go to these housing projects. One must remember actually that these are pockets of extreme under-privilege in suburbs which themselves are not necessarily very well off, but perhaps lower middle class. We’re not talking about huge swaths of territory. But, on these projects, the average income is half or a little more than half of the national average. For young men between the ages of 20 and 29, unemployment is three times higher than the national average.

An interesting study was done earlier this year by a French professor, who was looking at discrimination, and he sent out nearly 2,000 fictitious applications for a sales job, coming allegedly from five or six different sorts of people. And he found that the obviously North African man, with an Arab name, was invited to a job interview five times less often than his white French counterpart. Even those who get beyond school, to university or to college, and do further education, are finding that even the diplomas they gain do not protect them against unemployment in the way that they used to. Racial discrimination is very real in France, but it’s not something that the authorities ever really wanted to face up to.

AMY GOODMAN: And here you have the communities, particularly the elders of the communities, urging peace and to stop the violence. And yet, what is starting this conversation is the violence, the ongoing violence. I mean, the President hasn’t even spoken until very recently.

PETER FORD: Yes, it’s unclear, frankly, how much authority the preachers and the Islamic organizations have over the kids who are committing the violence. They — I don’t think that the ones who are setting fire to these cars listen very carefully to what their imams tell them. In fact, the mosques in some of these suburbs have been themselves organizing in groups of faithful younger men, amongst their congregations, to go out on a nightly basis and try to calm spirits, try to argue with the kids to send them home, to stop them confronting the police or burning down schools. I mean, one of the things they’re telling them, of course, is that they’re trashing their own neighborhoods, they’re burning the buses that their neighbors use to get to work, they’re burning the schools that their little brothers and sisters go to, and that this is counter-productive.

But I don’t think, at the moment, anybody seems to have sufficient authority over them to stop them from doing what they’re doing. And that is what has led Sarkozy to say, ’There’s only one thing to do: It’s to send in more riot police.’ But that, as we’ve seen over the last few nights, isn’t the answer, either. It may tamp down violence in one or two places, even though it often provokes them, as well, but then it pops up somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Ford, I want to thank you for being with us, reporter with the Christian Science Monitor, reporting from Paris.

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