Sarkozy Moves to Stop Violence, Rioting

Friends and classmates reflect at a memorial i i

Friends and classmates of the two boys killed when their motorbike hit a police car reflect at a memorial near the spot of the accident. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eleanor Beardsley, NPR
Friends and classmates reflect at a memorial

Friends and classmates of the two boys killed when their motorbike hit a police car reflect at a memorial near the spot of the accident.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR

French President Nicolas Sarkozy moves to quell the violence, promising punishment for rioters who attacked police. He attended memorial services for the two teenagers who died Sunday in a collision with a police car, which was the incident that sparked the rioting, and addressed police and the nation.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

Coming up, big-time lawyers waive billable hours to help Guantanamo detainees.

But first, this week's rioting in a suburb outside Paris brought back memories of the clashes across France two years ago. This time, the fighting between police and youths of African or Arab descent lasted only two nights, but it was nastier - buildings were burned and the police came under shotgun fire. Once again, the people of France are asking, what starts these sudden conflicts and what do the youths want?

Eleanor Beardsley visited the scene of the riots and sent this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: As night fell Friday in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, squads of riot police roared into town. One thousand extra police officers now patrol the streets after dark. Violence in this largely immigrant community erupted after two youths were killed when their motorbike collided with a police car. Scores of officers were severely injured - one lost an eye.

Residents of Villiers-le-Bel gathered earlier in the day after a prayer ceremony for the two dead boys. While people condemn the violence, they say they're not surprised by it.

The town councilmember Silva Ransabi(Ph) says places like Villiers-le-Bel are powder kegs waiting to explode.

Mr. SILVA RANSABI (Councilmember): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: There's unemployment, not enough housing and the kids are trapped here with too many police controls, he says. And when they go to Paris to look for work, they run into racism - these are ingredients for a disaster.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy disagrees. He gave his assessment of the situation while speaking to police officers Thursday.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) What happened in Villiers-le-Bel has nothing to do with the social crisis. It's about a federal crisis. If we allow little hoodlums to go unpunished and become heroes in their neighborhoods, that's an insult to their future and to the French Republic.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy's opponents blame clashes like that at Villiers-le-Bel on his anti-crime policies. They say Sarkozy's get-tough instruction to the riot squads has replaced earlier initiatives aimed at improving relations between police and the community.

In the street where the collision took place, a memorial has sprung up with pictures of the two dead teenagers surrounded by letters from their friends.

Fifteen-year-old Abdel Latash(ph) was their classmate. He crumples up a wrapper from the flowers he has just placed on the memorial. Latash and the others gathered here said the deaths were no accident.

Mr. ABDEL LATASH (Student): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The police car ran into them on purpose. It was just pure hatred, he says. The police should be punished, but they won't be because they were just Arab and black kids, and they're probably glad to be rid of two more of them.

Sarkozy has ordered an investigation into the incident, but stories that the police abandoned the dying youths are taken as fact by this group.

Their attitude is not surprising says Luke Bornier(ph) who covers the suburbs for the newspaper Le Monde. Bornier says the relationship between police and young people in neighborhoods, like this, has degenerated over the last two years.

Mr. LUKE BORNIER (Reporter, Le Monde): (Through translator) There's a small radical group of young people ready to wreak total havoc on the police, and at the same time, some of the police behavior is at the limit of what is acceptable, so the two sides are hardening against each other.

BEARDSLEY: Bornier says he is pessimistic much can be done to improve the deteriorating relations between the youths and police. Even if community policing was restored now, he says, it's probably already too late.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Villiers-le-Bel, France.

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