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French riots underscore deeper problems

By ELIZABETH BRYANT   |   Nov. 2, 2005 at 3:00 PM   |   Comments

PARIS, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Six straight nights of clashes between French police and rioters in Paris-area housing projects are laying bare simmering discrimination and ethnic tensions lying just under the country's officially colorblind creed of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The riots have gone far beyond law-and-order tangles between youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails and police responding with tear gas. Eighteen months before French presidential elections, they have taken on a raw political edge as they fuel partisan bickering and existing divisions within the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement party.

On Wednesday, French President Jacques Chirac waded into the fray for the first time, after keeping silent for nearly a week. At a ministerial meeting, Chirac appealed for firmness, but also for dialogue and respect in treating the largely ethnic North African-Muslim communities where the riots have taken place.

"We have to redouble our efforts to assure equal opportunities," Chirac added, touching on what activists say is a key root to the violence in communities where French citizens of immigrant origins remain second-class citizens in their own country.

The clashes began after two teenage boys were accidentally electrocuted last Thursday as they tried to scale a wall in the gritty, Paris suburb of Clichy-Sous-Bois. A public prosecutor said the boys believed police were chasing them. Police deny doing so.

Either way, the incident has sparked nightly riots that have since spread to other Paris-area suburbs. Helping fuel the riots has been the tough and controversial response of French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy -- who sparked outrage earlier this year by vowing to "clean out" another suburb rocked by ethnic violence -- blasted this week's rioters as "scum." His latest remarks have unleashed a tempest of indignation, with some of the shrillest criticism coming from opposition leftist lawmakers.

"When you are the interior minister and the No. 2 man in the government, you need to master your choice of words," Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande told reporters Wednesday. "Of course one must speak clearly. But one is not obliged to stigmatize a population. One is not obliged...to create conflicts."

Sarkozy's handling of the situation has also sparked criticism within his own UMP party, further highlighting the rivalry between him and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Both men are believed to be eyeing a bid for the 2007 presidential elections.

Azouz Begag, a junior government minister who is close to de Villepin, said he "contested" Sarkozy's methods in handling the rioting.

"It's by fighting against discrimination that these youths are victims that we can restore order, the order of equality," Begag, an ethnic-immigrant himself, told Liberation newspaper in an interview published Tuesday.

Sarkozy has since gone on the defensive, arguing that "scum" is not a vulgar word, and that he is a polite person.

Semantics aside, the political infighting reflects strong divisions about how to handle the country's restive and marginalized ethnic immigrant population.

Sarkozy himself has mixed a tough, law-and-order response with calls for a more even handed approach to France's ethnic immigrant population, which includes an estimated 5 million Muslims living in France.

Among other controversial measures, he has floated proposals to give foreigners the right to vote, championed "positive discrimination" to give minorities greater opportunities on the job and in schools, and called for tweaking a 1905 law separating church and state to allow for state financing of mosque construction.

De Villepin and his mentor, President Chirac, oppose all three proposals.

Others offer more blanket criticism.

"Slogans aren't going to solve the problems of difficult neighborhoods," said Dominique Sopo, head of SOS Racism, a Paris-based anti-discrimination group. "We need to break the ghettos. And not concentrate and sideline these populations in these (suburban housing projects)."

The current clashes have profited one group however: The far-right, anti-immigration National Front party. Appealing to the same populist fears of ethnic violence, the Front's leader Jean-Marie Le Pen placed second in the 2002 elections.

Some experts such as Jacqueline Costa Lascoux speculate the Front's law-and-order platform may go down even better in the next election.

"You'll notice that the extreme right is saying nothing, is doing nothing right now," said Costa-Lascoux, who heads the Observatory on Immigration and Integration, an independent body based in Paris. "They don't have to do anything but wait."

"Not only will we have another extreme candidate in the second round of voting, but I fear he'll get a lot of votes," she added of the 2007 elections.

France is hardly the only European country grappling with new generations of increasingly angry and disenfranchised ethnic immigrants.

Tensions have spilled into the streets in countries such as Britain, home to its own violent clashes in Birmingham last month; and in the Netherlands, where far-right politicians are also earning new support.

In many cases, the tensions have taken a religious dimension, Costa-Lascoux notes: Many of the rioting youths in Clichy-Sous-Bois and elsewhere are Muslims. Most of Europe's angry new generation of ethnic minorities have roots in developing countries.

"It's a sort of North-South clash in the midst of European societies," she said. "They want to wage war against Europe and the West as if they were in Iraq or Algeria. So there is this idea of replaying and independence movement against the colonizing country and social inequalities."

Sopo, too, believes that Europe as a whole has failed its newest citizens.

"And so today," he said, "Europe is paying for its lack of foresight and generosity toward these people."

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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