Paris Suburbs Still Burning

Angry residents in the Paris suburbs continue fighting with police, setting cars on fire and attacking officers. A long and difficult history fuels the conflict, reports Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's Paris bureau chief.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Rioting appears to be subsiding in the northern suburbs of Paris. That's after a thousand police officers were dispatched to quell the violence that began over the weekend. Dozens of police have been injured in the clashes, some of them by gunfire. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is vowing zero tolerance on the use of guns against police. He's downplaying suggestion that the violence is a symptom of the kind of social crisis that erupted in riots two years ago. Those riots got a lot of attention, if you remember.

Joining us now from Paris is Christopher Dickey, Newsweek Magazine's Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor. Hi, Christopher.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor, Newsweek Magazine): Hi, Luke, how are you?

BURBANK: Great. Thank you for joining us.

Now, immediately, when I saw the sort of news video of cars burning and people in the streets of the Paris suburbs, my mind immediately went back to 2005 -those riots got so much attention. Is that an apt comparison?

Mr. DICKEY: Well it can be useful in the sense that, really, not much have been done to change life in these projects on the outskirts of the cities of France since 2005. But the scope of the violence over the last few days was nothing like what we saw on 2005.

In 2005, it went on for three weeks and about 10,000 cars were burned around the country. Here, the major event, the major change, the thing that people worried about was that there were some firearms used, but the scope or the extent of the violence other than that was nothing even remotely comparable to what happened two years ago.

BURBANK: How do you think it's been reported as being such a big deal? To see it from New York, it looks like it's the same as we have seen.

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah, well, you know, that's part of the problem with TV news and also the way some of the print media covered these events. I think it was really blown out of proportion. I think there was one quote from a head of one of the police unions who described what was going on as being like guerilla warfare. And that became a headline even though the stories in which that - that quote appeared, AP, the New York Times didn't actually say that, that became a headline that was in everyone's mind. But it wasn't like guerilla warfare. It wasn't nearly as bad as anything remotely resembling guerilla warfare, and it wasn't nearly as bad as what happened two years ago. But then you add to that television coverage that fills the screen with a burning car, and that looks mighty important. So that's the way news sometimes gets distorted.

BURBANK: Well, having said that, I mean, there were allegations that, you know, people were taking shots at police. That's a pretty big deal, though, right?

Mr. DICKEY: Oh, no, that is a big deal and it's important. And that's one of the reasons that Sarkozy and the whole government has come down very hard on this issue. That was a threshold that had not been crossed before. And I suspect that even some of the rioters themselves are scared that they - that things went that far. This is not a country with a gun culture at all. For people to use guns in these kinds of incidents is unheard of; someone could've been killed. And remember that two years ago, even though there were riots that went on for three weeks and 10,000 cars were burned, nobody was killed.

So you've got this situation where once people start using guns, then the French look at their lives and say, things could get a lot worse. So there is this zero tolerance, and I think that the government is going to come down very hard, trying to catch anybody who is involved with those shooting incidents, probably just a very small handful people, and that'll be the end of it for the time being.

BURBANK: Do you think that Sarkozy - I think the quote from him was something like, you know, there's a name for what these people allegedly did, and it's attempted murder or something. He - do you think that his hard line approach, is that what calmed the situation down, because it seems like it's improved a little bit?

Mr. DICKEY: Well, first of all, I think the situation was never quite as bad as it was cracked up to be. Again, if you've got three or four people using guns or one or two, we don't really know how many people were involved. That is not the riot itself, and the riots were nothing like the extent that we saw two years ago.

But, yes, he blanketed that particular area with a thousand police. There were helicopters in the air. There was a real show of force, and a lot of the residents of the area felt that that was a good thing. They don't want these kids burning their shops and burning their cars. So I think they were happy to have order restored - I think that was the general sentiment.

On the other hand, very little has been done to improve life in those projects. And there's supposed to be a big plan announced in January, but whether that will be effective - there have been so many plans that have gone before - you know, is, of course, an open question.

BURBANK: Do you think that we'll be talking to you about this 12 months from now - another sort of flare up if something isn't done?

Mr. DICKEY: Yeah, I think we will be talking about this probably again and again and again because France has really had a terrible problem trying to assimilate its immigrant populations especially in the second and third generation - people who were born in France, who are French citizens, who have expectations that they'll have all the rights, privileges and potential that any French citizen has - and then discover that they don't.

So there's a lot of resentment in these areas, and it's going to keep bubbling over until they find some way to address, not only the particular problems of those projects, but the overall problems of prejudice that exists in there society.

BURBANK: Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief, Middle East regional editor for Newsweek Magazine, joining us from Paris. Thanks, Christopher.

Mr. DICKEY: Always a pleasure, Luke. Thanks.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.