Paris Riots Underscored by Cultural Tensions

Rioting in Paris

Riot policemen patrol and search people in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel during recent riots. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images

A string of riots in suburban Paris is making headlines following the death of two teenage boys. Emma Charlton, a reporter for Agence France-Presse (AFP), talks about the ethnic and cultural tensions that have led to the violence and what efforts are being made to restore order.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, a survey of important stories from around the world. An update on the worldwide AIDS epidemic - we'll talk about the trouble spots and points of progress. And the move against hooligans, an effort to stop violence and racism in international sports. That's coming up shortly.

But first, we want to talk about the riots that have consumed a Paris suburb. It started on Sunday, when two teenage boys in Villiers-le-Bel died after their motorbike collided with a police car.

Angry residents began to burn cars and buildings, saying the deaths were not accidental. In the days since, hundreds of police have been deployed. Dozens of them had been injured. France is again pondering, how could a country that prides itself on national unity and identity can explode so fast into hatred and recrimination?

Joining us to talk about all this is journalist Emma Charlton. She writes for the AFP, or French press in Paris.

Thanks so much for joining us, Emma.

Ms. EMMA CHARLTON (Journalist, Agence France-Presse): Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Emma, could you just refresh our memories? France has been down this road before, and fairly recently. In 2005, there were street riots that lasted, I think it was three weeks. What started it then?

Ms. CHARLTON: Well, the riots of 2005 were sparked in very similar circumstances, which is one of the things that set alarm bells off this week, really. The events of 2005 were set off by the deaths of two youths who were thought to be running from police, and who climbed into an electricity power substation and were electrocuted.

The handling - the official handling of the immediate aftermath of that suspicions of a cover-up of events, official denials that police had been in the area or trying to track the down kids fueled an explosion of anger, which very quickly spread from one town northeast of the capital to neighboring towns, and eventually to hundreds of similar high-immigration, low-income areas around France.

MARTIN: This disturbance seems to have been contained relatively quickly. As I understand it, that kind of disturbance went on for about three nights or so. But there haven't been nearly as many injuries and not nearly as much damage. Why do you think that is?

Ms. CHARLTON: It's a good question. Part of the answer may lie with the official response that the authorities were extremely quick to promise an investigation into what happened. Their language was conciliatory, as opposed to the situation in 2005 where the response was immediately extremely confrontational.

Another reason is perhaps that the initial elements of the investigation do appear to suggest that this was clearly an accident. And although there's a lot of suspicion in the town, in Villiers-le-Bel that police may have misbehaved and in some way, mishandled the situation, there doesn't appear to be - the rumor mill doesn't appear to have caught in the way it did two years ago.

MARTIN: Well, there is one question, though. It's my understanding that there was this accident, the boys were not wearing helmets, but there is a question of whether the police stopped to give aid or not. And if they didn't, would that not have been misconduct? I just wondered, do you think you know what the facts are? Did the police, in fact, stop to give aid to the boys?

Ms. CHARLTON: The facts have not been established. The facts have not yet been established. There's an internal police investigation, which is underway. There's also a separate judicial investigation for involuntary homicide, which has been opened, into the events. Again, a strong sign of appeasement, President Sarkozy personally promised this investigation to the families of the victims.

Initial witness statements that have been gathered by police have been leaked partly by the French press appear to suggest that the police did assist the teenagers, in as far as they were able. And then when fire service - which provides emergency assistance in France - arrived at the scene, the police officers quickly left. But again, this version of events is disputed by local residents and appears to be called into question by an amateur - by some amateur video footage that has been circulating, following the incident.

So, again, we're going to have to wait and see, really, for the outcome of the investigation to get the full picture.

MARTIN: You mentioned that there was a very tough officials response after the 2005 riots. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, called the rioters scum at that time. He is, of course, now president.

But it's also my understanding that the government, despite their sort of tough verbal response, did make some promises to address the concerns that the rioters expressed at the time, that essentially, that there was no opportunity that these - a lot of these youths were stuck, that they really did not have opportunities for advancement. Is there any sense that progress has been made on any of the promises the government made at that time to address their concerns?

Ms. CHARLTON: It's difficult to draw an assessment, a full assessment two years on. What is clear that the resentment, the sense of blocked opportunities and of widespread discrimination in the job market and access to housing and the attitude of the police as well, there's still tremendous resentment about these things, and these are problems which have not been solved.

Again, the roots of these problems go back 25 years. So, in a sense, I don't think anybody was expecting miracles. What 2005 did do most definitely was thrust into, you know, the really, the forefront of public consciousness the fact that these suburbs have developed into seriously problematic areas, with millions of people who don't feel they have the same opportunities as mainstream French people do.

And the situation France is in now is trying to put together its own recipe for tackling these problems, because - well, sometimes people got to understand -from the outside, in particular - if you're coming from an English or an American perspective, is that the recipes that have worked in some situations in America - for example, affirmative action are not - do not appear to be the solution that France is going to choose.

There's huge suspicion in France towards any kind of affirmative action, on the grounds that it would amount to singling out a particular community and putting up barriers, effectively, between different communities. France - French people are very strongly attached to the Republican idea that everybody should be equal before the law, and that people should not be given preferential treatment because of the color of their skin, their geographic origin, ethnic origin.

The problem France is facing now is how else to root out problems of discrimination which are real, which are, you know, which are being measured by various organizations without resorting to methods such as affirmative action.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. All right, Emma, thank you so much.

Emma Charlton is a journalist in Paris with the AFP, Agence France-Presse. She joined from Paris.

Emma, thank you so much for bringing us up to date.

Ms. CHARLTON: Thank you.

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Sarkozy Urges Calm After Riots in Paris Suburb

The families of two youths leave the Elysee presidential palace courtyard in Paris. i i

The families of two youths killed in a motorbike collision with a police car in the northern Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel leave the Elysee presidential palace courtyard in Paris after meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The families of two youths leave the Elysee presidential palace courtyard in Paris.

The families of two youths killed in a motorbike collision with a police car in the northern Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, flanked by town mayor Didier Vaillant (left), leave the Elysee presidential palace courtyard in Paris after meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The president of France voiced his disdain Wednesday for the riots that broke out in a Paris suburb, saying the clash between police and minority teenagers that resulted in injury to some officers was "unacceptable."

The comments were President Nicolas Sarkozy's first response to the violence that started over the weekend while he was in China.

Sarkozy declared that the rioters would be brought to justice.

The violence started to ebb Tuesday after authorities were dispatched to round up those throwing Molotov cocktails and burning cars.

"What has happened is absolutely unacceptable," Sarkozy said after meeting with a wounded police captain hospitalized in Eaubonne, north of Paris.

He described the attacks against police as assassination attempts, and pledged to bring offenders to justice.

Rioting erupted after the deaths of two minority teens whose motor scooter collided with a police car in Villiers-le-Bel, a blue-collar town on Paris' northern edge. Residents claimed that the officers left without helping the teens.

Sarkozy described the teens' deaths as "distressing" but said it was no excuse for shooting police. He met with families of the two teens and told them that a judicial inquiry had been opened into their deaths.

The rioting recalls the violence that raged in 2005. Those riots also started in the suburbs of northern Paris, when two teens were electrocuted in a power substation while hiding from police.

The recent violence highlights that anger still smolders in poor housing projects where many Arabs, blacks and other ethnic minorities live largely isolated from the rest of society. High unemployment continues to be a problem, along with feelings of disenfranchisement and harassment by police, so the deaths of the two youths wound up igniting a tinderbox.

Sarkozy is unwelcome in the poor neighborhoods because of his hard line on crime and immigration. He was interior minister in charge of police during the 2005 riots and took a tough stance on the violence.

But even before those riots, he angered many in the projects when he called delinquents there "scum."

Didier Vaillant, mayor of Villiers-le-Bel, asked Sarkozy to arrange meetings to address the "difficulties facing the suburbs."

Among them are the long-held tensions between France's largely white police force and ethnic minorities in poor neighborhoods. Heavy state investments have done little to improve the depressed area just a few miles away from the glamorous tourist attractions in Paris.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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