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Police step up efforts as riots strike Paris

Chirac pledges to restore order

PARIS -- With violence spilling to central sections of the City of Light, desperate French officials yesterday put more helicopters into the air and more police onto the streets in a thus far futile effort to suppress the worst civil unrest the nation has seen in decades.

President Jacques Chirac, criticized in recent days for not taking decisive measures against the violence by rampaging youths, vowed last night to restore order without offering details.

''The republic is quite determined, by definition, to be stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear," Chirac said after an emergency session of the domestic security council. ''The law must have the last word."

But as he spoke, Molotov cocktails and more powerful devices were exploding across the country, and police seemed to have no clear strategy for dealing with a crisis worsening by the day. Nationwide, about 3,000 vehicles and dozens of businesses were destroyed between sundown on Saturday and dawn yesterday, the most destructive and chaotic night since disturbances started Oct. 27.

Early today, hours after Chirac spoke, rioters fired shots at police in Grigny, south of Paris, and burned hundreds of cars in several towns across the country, Reuters reported. Ten policemen were wounded, two seriously, when youths fired shotguns, police said. One officer was treated with lead shot wounds to the throat.

For the first time, Paris itself was struck early yesterday as marauding gangs of Muslim youths firebombed cars and smashed windows. At least three cars were torched in the Place de la Republique, a bustling neighborhood just northeast of central Paris whose brasseries and bars are frequented by tourists and Parisians alike. Dozens more vehicles were torched by rolling teams of attackers in other parts of a city famed for its beauty and refinement.

There was evidence yesterday that the hit-and-run arsonists may be more organized than officials had thought. The Justice Ministry announced a raid on a ''bomb-making factory" in Evry, south of Paris, where Molotov cocktails and other gasoline bombs had been assembled for distribution to the fast-moving gangs.

''What we are noticing is that the bands of youths, little by little, are getting more organized," Patrick Hamon, spokesman for the national police, told reporters.

He said lawbreakers were using cellphones with text messaging to organize attacks and swap recipes for explosives. The gangs have used motor scooters and cars to roar into target neighborhoods, hurl incendiaries, and then peel off before police can arrive.

The spread of violence to Paris marked a significant deterioration of the crisis, and unnerved some residents.

''This is terrifying, this is terror coming right to the heart of our society," said Luci Saint-Onge, 37, a resident of the Republique section in Paris, who was awakened by the sound of fuel explosions. ''No one understands why the government can't put a stop to this."

On the 11th night of violence, French leaders seemed powerless to quell the disturbances or contain them in the gritty suburbs north and northeast of Paris, where the unrest started. Chirac has resisted calls to declare a national state of emergency and dispatch troops to besieged centers.

Authorities continued to offer conflicting assertions of blame, with some suggesting the violence was being orchestrated by ''drug traffickers," while others insisted that Islamic fundamentalists were involved in the unrest, according to French media reports.

Interviews in one of the hardest-hit communities found Muslims appalled by the destruction, but strongly of the opinion that legitimate grievances underlie the attacks and that radical brands of Islam are capturing the imagination of increasing numbers of young French Muslims.

''These young men, they have no jobs, no hope -- of course they will lash out," said Ahmed Cherreuff, an electronics repairman in the blighted center of Aulnay-sous-Bois, the scene of some of the worst violence. ''It's crazy, of course, because it accomplishes nothing."

Meanwhile, the violence continued to spread across France, from the northern reaches of Normandy, to the German border, and to the Mediterranean shore, where destruction of property by small groups of disaffected young Muslims was reported near the resort centers of Nice and Cannes.

In the quiet Normandy town of Évreux, a shopping mall, two schools, and the post office were destroyed in a rampage that apparently caught police unprepared, according to French news reports. ''These people have smashed everything and have strewn desolation," Mayor Jean-Louis Debre told reporters. ''They don't form part of our universe."

In scores of cities and towns, bands of young men of Arabic or black African heritage, thought to be Muslims, have torched thousands of cars, destroyed hundreds of shops, and targeted hospitals, nursery schools, post offices, even police stations.

Ostensibly, the violence is a protest against the poverty, joblessness, and other problems afflicting France's Muslim population, which numbers more than 5 million, the largest in Europe. But police and some community leaders say the violence reflects vicious hooliganism as much as fury against injustice.

Disturbances first broke out in housing projects north of Paris after two Muslim teenagers were electrocuted in a power substation while apparently seeking to avoid arrest. Rumors swept neighborhoods that the pair was forced to clamber onto high-power cables by pursuing police.

French officials have adamantly denied the accusations. But Muslim anger was further stoked when Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy described the dead teens as delinquents and dismissed violent protesters as ''scum."

Many analysts maintain that the deaths were the catalyst for the violence, not the root cause. Instead, they attribute the protests to ethnic and religious discrimination that has resulted in sharp economic disparities between Muslims and other French citizens. Jobless rates among Muslims are about three times the national average, according to social scientists, and most Muslims dwell in bleak public housing estates that are virtual ghettos.

''Muslim people feel cheated, particularly the second generation of immigrants who possess French passports and speak the French language but are marginalized because of racism," said Olivier Roy, a professor of Islamic and immigration issues at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. ''There is a lack of opportunity to get out of the ghetto."

Police say criminal youth gangs are largely responsible for the violence, while conceding that their actions reflect a larger angst felt by many Muslims. Some politicians attribute the violence to the ''invisible hand" of Islamic fundamentalists, according to French media reports.

There has been speculation, but no official confirmation, that the government is taking a fairly soft approach to the lawlessness out of worry that a hard crackdown might trigger anger across the Islamic world. Most French Muslims are Arab immigrants or their descendants from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, which were French colonial possessions until the 1950s and '60s. Recent years have also seen substantial influxes of Muslims from black Africa.

Although authorities said recent days have seen a decline in pitched street battles between rioters and police, they acknowledged that the numbers of cars, businesses, and public facilities destroyed in nightly attacks have risen dramatically and that the situation, overall, is getting worse.

Thousands of police reinforcements were ordered to emergency duty last night while helicopters rigged with high-powered lights and surveillance cameras sought to track roving bands.

''They are very mobile. It's hard to combat," Hamon said. ''Some are very young, almost children."

Petra Krischok of the Globe's Berlin bureau contributed to this report.

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