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One year after riots, "civil war climate" in French suburbs By Siegfried Mortkowitz

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Saturday October 21, 2006

Paris- The "anniversary" of last year's three-week explosion of urban rioting is approaching, and France's rundown suburban ghettoes are again seething with potential violence. Joachim Masanet, secretary-general of the UNSA Police trade union, said he recently made a tour of French cities, and heard the same message everywhere: "Everyone fears that November 2006 will be the same as in 2005. The tension has not stopped mounting."

As a consequence, the National Syndicate of Police Officers (SNOP) has demanded that reinforcements be deployed in the departement of Seine-Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, because "the delinquents in certain housing estates are preparing to violently 'celebrate' (last year's) events."

So great is the fear about a renewal of violence, that Interior Nicolas Sarkozy said this week he will draw up a bill that would make it a crime - rather than a misdemeanor, as it is currently - to attack police officers, gendarmes or fire-fighters and will propose a law to treat juvenile repeat offenders as adults in court.

While the proposals are intended to polish Sarkozy's law-and-order credentials for next year's presidential elections, they also reflect the fear running through the country that it could experience another orgy of violence like last year's.

For three weeks beginning on the night of October 27, 2005, minority youths rampaged in more than 300 towns and cities throughout France, burning cars and buildings, smashing windows and clashing with police, and ultimately forcing the government to declare a state of emergency.

The current fear has been fed by a recent series of attacks on law officers in the same dilapidated pre-fab suburban housing estates that were the scenes of last year's rioting.

The damage of last year's rioting was primarily to property, with more than 10,000 cars and several hundred buildings set on fire. Miraculously, no one was killed.

However, this year's violence has been directed much more at people. According to Interior Ministry data, an average of 15 acts of violence a day have been committed this year in the French ghettoes against police officers, fire-fighters and similar Establishment figures.

A 38-year-old officer in an elite unit responsible for a northern suburb of Paris called the deteriorating situation "a civil war climate under any other name."

According to many politicians serving these neighbourhoods, a renewal of suburban rioting is possible because nothing has changed to defuse the forces that led to last year's violence.

"There is still the same precariousness, the same social desperation," said Manuel Valls, Socialist mayor of Evry, south of Paris. "We are still sitting atop a tinderbox."

Statistics bear him out. Unemployment in neighbourhoods officially classified as "fragile" remains more than twice as high - 22 per cent - than that of the nation in general. And for those 25 years of age or younger living in the suburban ghettoes, the jobless rate can run as high as 40 per cent in certain neighbourhoods.

According to Marie Ocana, jobs counselor in a Paris suburb, "Some employers say straight-out they will not hire youths from a certain neighbourhood."

Following last year's rioting, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin put forward a number of proposals to improve conditions in the affected areas, including an urban renewal programme that will affect the lives of some 4 million people by the year 2013 and cost 30 to 35 billion euros (38-44 billion dollars).

But in the short term, France's minority ghetto residents are as disadvantaged and frustrated as they were last year.

Claude Dillain, the mayor of the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where last year's rioting began, said his town's residents are growing increasingly disappointed and frustrated.

"They see that society has not changed in regard to them or the suburbs," he said. "Their disillusionment is all the greater because they were incited and encouraged a great deal this year. The next stage is rage."

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency