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FRANCE: Troubled Suburbs Erupt Again

Michael Deibert

VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France, Nov 29 2007 (IPS) - The police station is a smouldering abandoned ruin, its roof gone, its walls charred black, and tiles scattered about its courtyard. From behind its locked gates the pungent stench of burned wood and plastic is carried on the wind into the street.

The commissariat of this town 10 miles north of Paris was ransacked and burned Sunday by rioters enraged by the deaths of two teenagers – killed when the motorbike they were driving collided with a police cruiser.

Police say that they aided the two youths – neither of whom was said to be wearing a crash helmet – while some local residents maintain that police are at fault for leaving the scene before treating the boys. The boys have been identified as Laramy, 16, and Moushim, 15.

Pitched battles between police firing rubber bullets and tear gas, and masked and hooded rioters attacking with Molotov cocktails, bottles, and – in a potentially lethal escalation of force – firearms, continued Monday night.

According to police officials, by Tuesday morning over 80 officers had been injured – some seriously – and at least 63 vehicles in Villiers-le-Bel and neighbouring communities had been set aflame.

Residents have been left wondering whether there would be a repeat of the riots that shook the nation for weeks almost exactly two years ago.

"The commissariat was burned on the first night of the disturbances," Chanay Mahalinsnam, a Sri Lankan immigrant who runs the small Ocean Tropical supermarket just up the street from the destroyed building, told IPS.

"Last night there were many problems. They were throwing a lot of bottles, and they were setting a lot of fires, they tried to burn the library," Mahalinsnam said, "We are afraid."

The banlieues – as the poor, heavily-immigrant suburbs, which ring many French cities are known – have been flashpoints for conflict in the past.

An eerie precursor of the present unrest occurred in 2005 following the deaths of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna – two youths electrocuted while trying to hide from the police in the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois. Rioting resulted in the torching of 9,000 cars and dozens of buildings, injuries to 130 police and fire fighters, arrests of nearly 2,900 people, and the murder of a retiree beaten to death as he attempted to put out a fire near his home.

Despite their close proximity to moneyed avenues such as Paris’ Champs- Élysées – which switched on its famous Christmas lights with great ceremony this week – the banlieues remain physically as well as socially cut off from much of the rest of France. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent, double the national average, with that for 21 to 29-year-olds reaching more than 30 percent.

Poorly served by France’s public transportation system, commuting from the banlieues to cities where jobs and services are often requires a long ride on an infrequent suburban bus filled to overflowing.

A 2004 study by sociologist Jean-François Amadieu and Adia – one of the largest human resource and temporary job companies in Paris – found that job applicants with traditionally ‘French’ sounding surnames or more desirable address codes were five times more likely to be called in for a job interview than prospective employees with Arab or African-appearing names or addresses in the suburbs.

France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy – who returned from a state visit to China to chair a special meeting regarding the crisis – had previously denounced delinquents in the suburbs as racaille (rabble), and vowed to clean them out with a kärcher (a high-pressure hose) while serving as minister of interior under the government of France’s previous president, Jacques Chirac.

Sarkozy, who took office in June, has promised reforms that would address the joblessness and discrimination that many see as the root of the malaise. He says that he will outline a plan to address this inequity in January. But so far, many say there has been precious little change in the lives of the people – particularly the youth – in France’s suburbs.

"Nothing has changed in terms of the institutional racism that exists," says Patrick Weil, director of research at France&#39s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

"When you have policemen confronting people five times a day, in addition to discrimination on the employment market, on the housing market and elsewhere, all that creates a very bad atmosphere," Weil stressed.

At a hastily arranged press conference at Villiers-le-Bel’s town hall Tuesday, local officials issued a plea for peace and for more help from the national government.

"Villiers-le-Bel has suffered a trauma," said Didier Vaillant, the town’s mayor. "But this violence is not acceptable. Police and firemen have been injured, and we are launching an appeal for calm."

Even stronger words came from Dilain Claude, mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 unrest began.

"Two years after the ordeal and social revolt we experienced, the time for compassion is over," said Claude, speaking to reporters at the conference. "It is time for action."

As they spoke, schoolchildren from Villiers-le-Bel carried photographs of Laramy and Moushim attached to cardboard posters outside of the mayor’s office.

Before his death, one of the boys, Moushim, kept a blog – – which featured whimsical photos of him perched atop a camel, and where he confessed that he was happy being "different" and that he loved his mother.

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