French Rage Explodes in Riots

Christopher Dickey on whether the French riots will spread.

Philippe Huguen, AFP / Getty Images

A lot of people in one of the rougher neighborhoods of Amiens, a small city in northern France, had a sleepless night last night—and much of the rest of the country will be on edge tonight. The reason: a breakout of riots that one French tabloid likened to "urban guerrilla" activity. Someone even shot at the cops with live ammunition, which is still considered a rarity in France. Sixteen police were injured in the violence. And no arrests have been made. The question now is whether the rioting will spread.

For decades, young people in the housing projects and isolated immigrant-filled suburbs on the outskirts of French cities have taken out their frustrations by burning cars and clashing with cops. Mostly that's happened on long, hot summer nights, when school is out and jobs are in short supply, especially for young men from African and Arab families. Then in October and November 2005, riots spread throughout the country. Around the world, headlines asked, "Is Paris Burning?"

It wasn't. But thousands of cars were torched in scores of housing projects on the distant outskirts of the French capital and other cities. Unlike riots in the United States, which often result in fatalities, nobody was killed by the violence in 2005. But the French establishment was shaken. Many vows were made to increase funding for these neighborhoods and bring the young people there into the national mainstream.

Almost seven years later, few of those promises have been kept, and much of the political discourse about immigrants in France has come to be dominated by right-wing politicians playing on racism and xenophobia.

One of the main concerns of authorities now is to keep the death toll down to zero. The 2005 riots started when two teenagers who were being chased by police tried to hide out in a power company substation and were electrocuted. The stories that circulated about their deaths ignited the latent anger in similar neighborhoods throughout the country.

In Amiens, there had been some signs of violence on Sunday night, but it really took off about 11 p.m. on Monday as a group of about 100 young men reportedly started burning trash cans and cars and throwing up barriers across the streets. As about 150 police arrived on the scene, according to local reporters, street battles erupted that lasted for about three hours. A nursery school and some other buildings were burned while tear gas canisters flew and a police helicopter overhead called for reinforcements.

When Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited the scene this afternoon, a 25-year-old from the neighborhood named Youssef reportedly tried to confront him amid some pushing and shoving. Youssef demanded that Valls "answer his questions," said the report, but Valls slipped out of the crowd and into the town hall.

It's easy to imagine what those questions might have been: How can I get a job? How can I get a future? Will the children and grandchildren of immigrants who are black and brown and in many cases Muslim ever really be accepted in France? What's harder to imagine is that Valls, or any other government official, really has the answer.

By Tuesday night, the French government had sent a total of 250 members of the CRS (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité) to the scene of the troubles in the Briquetterie neighborhood of Amiens. At least since the protests that shook Paris back in 1968, when students taunted "CRS-SS" as if the riot cops were Nazis, the impressively armed and armored unit has had a reputation for very tough, and usually very effective crowd control. In this case, in addition to the usual tear gas and rubber bullets, the CRS reportedly brought two water cannons.

On Wednesday morning, the French press -- which has been fairly careful not to sensationalize the violence -- quoted officials saying the situation in Amiens was "very calm" overnight. Yes, seven cars were burned, but they were in another neighborhood.

At the same time, more details were emerging about the origins of the violent confrontations in Briquetterie. According to Le Monde, the neighborhood had been tense for much of the month and a focus for stepped-up policing. (With 24 percent unemployment in north Amiens, it's not surprising things get tense.) On Sunday night, a group of people had gathered to mourn the death of a young man from the neighborhood killed in a motorcycle accident. The CRS positioned themselves in sight of the crowd, according to Le Monde, but did not do anything at first. Then they stopped a man driving the wrong way down a one-way street and questioned and searched him in a "very aggressive" way, one witness told Le Monde. The scene degenerated, tear gas was used, and that set the stage for the more premeditated confrontations the following night.

Meanwhile, in the south of France, the city of Toulouse has seen a sudden outbreak of what is, for France, a disturbing level of gun violence. A feud between young men who grew up together, but are now enemies, has involved multiple stabbings, beatings, and now shootings.

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On Tuesday, a group of older family members and a local imam marched through the city to call for an end to the violence, in the imam's words, "before somebody's killed by a stray bullet."