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Les Yeux on France: Rioting Anniversary Draws Near

Les Yeux on France: Police Attacked as Anniversary of Rioting Draws Near

By Yasmine Ryan

Burning car in Strasbourg, during the November 2005 riots

Scoop Audio.Scoop Audio (click here to listen) to this edition of Les Yeux on France

(AIX-EN-PROVENCE – 18 October 2006) – As the anniversary of last year’s widespread rioting in France draws near, tensions are rising. In particular, many in France are concerned that there have been several attacks on police in the build-up to the anniversary of the events. In what seems to be a new tactic to counter police intervention in the alienated suburbs, youths have ambushed police on three occasions. Police sources are especially fearful that this represents a permanent escalation; a response to the Government’s lack of action in the aftermath of the riots.

The November 2005 revolts were sparked by the death of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois (the working class suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis), who were electrocuted as they fled police on 27 October 2005. They lasted throughout the month of November, spreading to many of the low-income ‘quartiers populaires’ which are inhabited predominantly by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Most recently, a patrol car which responded to several anonymous calls and the smashing of a car window in the Epinay-sur-Seine housing estate (Seine-Saint-Denis) found itself trapped between two parked cars on Friday evening. It was then surrounded by between 30 and 50 youths armed with baseball bats, iron bars and rocks. One of the three police officers was hit in the jaw and subsequently hospitalised. The mob was dispersed when the police started shooting into the air.

Similar attacks occurred in Les Mureaux on 19 September and at Tarterêts on 1 October. The unnerving nature of this repetition has led to the Police Union urging that law enforcement officers only be sent into such suburbs in response to serious calls.

Youths have ambushed police three times in the past month.

According to the Libération report on Monday, such ambushes are an evolution in France’s urban violence. They are of a more serious nature than the car burnings that characterised November 2005. Instead, the move to direct conflict with the police indicates a growing confidence amongst suburban youths and an increased resistance to state infringements on their home turf. Interactions between youths and police are likely to become increasingly violent as the cycle continues down this path.

Behind this increased resistance is the aggressive nature of Sarkozy’s use of police in the suburbs. Even the Police Union criticises the inflammatory policies Nicolas Sarkozy, condemning intervention ”at the cost of human contact” with the population.

As this issue continues to be debated in the French media, it is sure to feature as a major election issue. For some, it is indicative of a lack of law and order, while for others, it calls for the need for social policies to redress the inequalities.

A group which formed in the aftermath of the outburst of anger and frustration plans to commemorate the anniversary by presenting a collection of testimonies to the French National Assembly. Members of the ‘AC le feu’ association (Association for collection, liberty, egality, fraternity, together and united) have spent the past year travelling across France, collecting eyewitnesses accounts, as well as reflections on the issues surrounding the collective outburst and suggestions for remedies. Many of the 25 towns and housing estates visited were sites of car-burning late last year, but other areas were also included in the survey.

The project gives a voice to those whom are normally ignored. It seeks to explain the sentiments behind the riots, such as the frustration at widespread unemployment and the discrimination that keeps many employment opportunities beyond the reach of those in certain suburbs. Other sources of discontentment include the education system, the attitude of police and the lack of social services provided in the marginalised suburbs. People are particularly critical of the portrayal the youths receive in the media and their general sentiment of being ignored and shunned by the system.

That the attitude of the government has not significantly progressed is reflected in the fact that, last Friday, the President of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debré announced that he won’t be receiving those who initiated the project. Sarkozy has been widely criticised for his heavy-handed and often provocative treatment of the issue, which some commentators argue led to an escalation in the violence of November 2005.

Since November 2005, many French celebrities have gone to the suburbs to try to urge the young to enrol to vote and to get more involved in civic life so that they might have more political influence. Whether or not enough of them overcome their cynicism with the system and vote in the Presidential election remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, they won’t be voting for Sarkozy.


Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently completing a Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.


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