SEVRAN, France, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- Parts of suburban Paris, traditionally known for its perfect snapshot of multiculturalism, has in recent nights offered a much grimmer sight. Gangs of angry youths have torched dozens of cars and set afire two primary school classrooms and the construction site for a new multimedia library in Sevran.
And while residents of the "banlieux chauds" (hot suburbs) cast the blame on a "few delinquents," they save the brunt of their anger on France's center-right government, and its get-tough interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.
"He had no right to insult the young people," said 45-year-old Farid Begal. "He shouldn't talk about cleaning out the ghettos," the native Algerian tradesman said of Sarkozy.
The interior minister's recent statements have fanned the flames in the already volatile suburbs, populated mostly by North African immigrants.
"On the other hand," Begal added, keeping a sharp eye on shoppers hovering over his stall of underwear and socks, "the problems of the ghettos aren't his fault. Governments for the past 30 years have ignored them. And now we're paying for it."
Eight straight nights of unrest in working-class towns ringing Paris have laid bare yawning racial, religious and class divides in a country that officially champions a colorblind ethos of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The violence calmed Thursday night. But roving gangs of angry youths -- many of African and North African-Muslim origin -- nonetheless set some 150 vehicles ablaze in the region, authorities reported.
The riots were touched off a week ago when two African youths were accidentally electrocuted while climbing a fence in Clichy-Sous-Bois, just a few miles from Sevran. A local public prosecutor said the boys believed the police had been chasing them. Police denied doing so -- a claim supported in a preliminary report released by the Interior Ministry Thursday.
Either way, the violence has since spread to at least 20 towns, including Sevran, home to some 50 different nationalities. And just 18 months before French presidential elections, it is taking on a raw political edge as well.
Like Begal, a parade of leftist politicians have blasted Sarkozy -- a likely presidential candidate -- for his blunt declarations this week, which included calling the rioters "scum" and vowing to fight "a war without mercy" against crime in France's immigrant-heavy ghettos.
But criticism has also come from Sarkozy's own ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, fueling a fierce rivalry between the minister and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, considered another presidential hopeful. The two men have very different views on how to deal with France's ethnic immigrants, many of whom are Muslims.
On the surface at least, the two ministers closed ranks Thursday. In remarks before the French Senate, they pledged to restore order and crack down on professional, criminal gangs which were profiting from the chaos. "Law and order will have the last word," Villepin said.
But a few miles outside the French capital, Sevran's 36-year-old communist mayor Stephane Gatignon expressed strong doubts that law and order would solve the town's problems.
"These riots are about a lot of things," said clean-shaven, blond-haired Gatignon, who was elected Sevran's mayor four years ago. "They're linked to the problems of French suburbs in general: The unemployment, the ghettoization, the lack of common culture. These young people don't have any goals. And without goals, you can't live."
Not everyone agrees with such assessments. Can Bolatoglu, a 34-year-old Turkish clothes salesman, has no sympathy for Sevran's youthful rioters. "If you follow the laws here, there's no problem," said Bolatoglu, who has lived in France for 13 years. "It's the people who steal and break the laws who have problems"
Nonetheless, soul searching over the motives of this week's riots is raging across France, as politicians, pundits and ordinary French see suburbs like Sevran -- fringed with trees but also with ugly housing projects -- as symbols of the country's failure to integrate millions of immigrants who have flocked here since the 1950s.
Today their children and grandchildren have French nationality. But many of them remain locked in the projects, fertile breeding grounds of despair -- and the kind of violence that erupted last week.
At Sevran, where about a third of the town's 50,000 residents are first-generation or ethnic immigrants, the unemployment rate is about 18-19 percent -- almost twice the national average. More than 30 percent of youths under 25 years are jobless -- a rate "that ranks with underdeveloped nations," notes mayor Gatignon.
A few blocks from the town's homely city hall, 25-year-old Deuceurr Duaby -- a lanky Malian with fake gold chains, baggy pants and a baseball cap twisted backward -- acknowledged that life in France wasn't easy.
"It's not like in Mali," he said. "I see discrimination everywhere."
Tricy Itashi, 19, coming home from high school, agreed. "As a black and a foreigner, you don't have many choices," said Itashi, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Itashi said he knows several of the youths who participated in Sevran's recent riots. But he doesn't read much more into the acts besides just letting loose. "I think it's a bit stupid that it went so far," he added.
Others are far more critical. "I don't look for reasons" into the violence, said ElBekkay Merzak, leader of Sevran's Muslim community. "I condemn it. These are extremely serious incidents. Violence and disorder doesn't solve problems -- it just breeds more violence."
Merzak has tried to calm matters, sending out groups of Muslim youths to try to talk the perpetrators.
"This isn't about integration," he said. "The people who are responsible for this disorder were born in France. They're French."
For his part, Gatignon has been trying to create a sense of community among Sevran's disparate ethnic communities. He hosts regular community meetings. Thursday, he attended with Christian leaders end-of-Ramadan celebrations at Sevran's mosque. And he wants to build a new mosque in Sevran, since the existing one is too small for the town's Muslim population.
Now, Gatignon fears the unrest washing over Sevran and other suburbs may unravel these painstaking efforts at community building.
"In France, we haven't been able to create a common culture," he said. "Today, the Moroccans are with the Moroccans. The Algerians are with the Algerians. The Asians are with the Asians. We should have worked on this 20 years ago -- to get people to integrate."
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