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Protest Burn Out

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Issue: 11 Section: Accounts Geography: Europe France, Paris Topics: police, social movements

November 7, 2005

Protest Burn Out

by Marco Chown Oved

Riots around Paris Continue

In areas where cars are being set alight, incomes are 75% below the national average. photo: Marco Chown Oved
As the smog slowly burns off in the morning heat, life in the Parisian suburb of Sevran attempts to go on as if nothing is happening.

People walk to work, or carry their groceries home, but all vehicle transport has come to a near stand-still. The rapid commuter trains are hours late or non existent; the wide boulevards are packed with bumper to bumper traffic.

These "disturbances" – as they have been dubbed by public officials – are the result of the burnt-out vehicles that litter the streets. They are everywhere, smouldering in the early light, silent, but announcing their presence with the pungent smell of burnt rubber.

Every day for the last week the residents of Sevran, along with dozens of other towns in the district of Seine Saint-Denis, have awoken to find these derelict car carcases after gangs of youth set them ablaze during the night.

"Its like the hurricanes," a young woman, who declined to give her name, commented. She stood outside the train station where passers-by have gathered around the skeletal remains of a bus.

"My American friend called from Florida to ask if I was alright!" she added with a laugh.

"Its incredible! Not the violence so much as the cost of it all," said Ms. Gois, who stopped to join the growing crowd by the bus.

Stopping to gawk, many people pull out their cell phones to take a picture and send it to friends. If one can overlook the similarity it bears to the remains of suicide bombings in Israel, the twisted and blackened bus is truly grotesque, but somehow beautiful.

One man, Mr Cheng, was filming and snapping photos at the same time.

"It's my car. But it's going to be hard to convince the insurance company of that. There's nothing left to identify it" he said of his car that now looked more like a pile of scrap metal.

photo: Marco Chown Oved
Besides the low hum of conversation, there is very little noise. This is not the chaotic scene one would expect mere hours after a riot that destroyed, in this reporter's personal count, six cars, a bus, three transport trucks, and a private theatre school in one night.

That can now be added to the official estimate of the more than 500 burnt vehicles in Siene Saint Denis that the police report. This comes after 9 nights of fires in dumpsters, in buildings and in vehicles. There have even been reports of Molotov cocktails thrown at police.

The spark that ignited this nightly chaos is the deaths of two teenagers by electrocution. Stopped for questioning by police the night of October 27th, the two boys fled into what has been identified by the media as a transformer station, pursued by police. The boys were killed after hopping the fence and coming into contact with a structure within.

The police, predictably, have been tight lipped about the incident. First, they denied any involvement whatsoever, and now they admit to having contact with the youths the same night of the incident.

Now these same police have descended into the affected areas in unprecedented numbers. Officials claim 3000 national police have been deployed in Seine Saint-Denis, but the newspaper Liberation is sceptical, stating in an editorial that there must be many more.

Despite their numbers, any effect they have had has been marginal. Each successive night claims more cars than the last.

"The cops do nothing. They come and stand around. They won't even intervene if they see a fire being set" said Walid Al-Sheikh, a witness of the previous night's violence.

"They're afraid. The kids are faster than them and know the streets better" he added.

This hesitation – the government didn't officially comment until the third day of rioting – is endemic to the depressed areas affected. The police have long stayed away, leaving the suburbs to gangs and criminals.

These suburbs – called banlieus – that ring Paris were built in the 60s and 70s to house the influx of immigrants that ballooned after the independence of former French colonies. Hastily constructed, the concrete high rises and crowded tenements sharply contrast the classical architecture just the other side of the periphery – the road that rings Paris proper.

The periphery is more than a physical barrier, separating economically and racially disparate populations. It's a symbolic barrier too: a sort of French Mason-Dixon line that demarcates the geography of desirability.

Jane Kramer, writing in the New Yorker, explains that these banlieus were originally envisioned as transition neighbourhoods for the newly arrived people – who were in large part of North African origin. Yet more than thirty years later many residents remain in their transitional lodging, transforming these weigh-points into racially and economically depressed prisons.

photo: Marco Chown Oved
Now these first arrivals have produced a second generation of French-born black and Arab residents. This is the demographic that is being blamed for the fires, violence and property destruction that now enters its second week.

Kramer adds that these youths don't share the optimism the older generation had upon arrival; they only see the systematic discrimination that has prevented them from integrating into mainstream French life.

Despite the many special programs the government has implemented in these zones, unemployment stands at 19.6 percent - double the national average - and at more than 30 percent among 21- to 29- year-olds, according to official figures. Even more stark is the fact that here, incomes are 75 percent below the national average.

"Its disgusting, what we're doing to ourselves" said Abdul Mohammed outside his home flanked by half a dozen burnt out cars.

Pointing to one of the wrecks, he explains that, "it belongs to my neighbour. Because it was an old car, he had no insurance. Now, he has no car at all."

"The people here cannot afford to take from each other. If these kids are mad at the police, why aren't they burning police cars?" Mohammed asked.

The disturbances have, without a doubt, caught the attention of the French authorities – and, to their consternation, the attention of the world press as well. But without a clear grievance, any sort of articulated communication to the media, or political representation, the rioters have squandered any opportunity they might have had to start meaningful reforms.

Sympathy for them wears thin. First the police and the French government, and now the media and a growing proportion of the public have rejected the legitimacy of the root causes of this unrest. Their rhetoric is almost universally centered on the restoration of order and the apprehension of those responsible for the destruction.

Al-Sheikh predicts an ugly end. "The army will come. They may shoot, yes. But if that's what it takes to end this madness, then it's worth it."

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