Officials, Citizens Seek to Control Unrest in France

A fireman prepares to extinguish a burning car torched in Strasbourg's southern suburb of Neuhof

A fireman prepares to extinguish a burning car torched in Strasbourg's southern suburb of Neuhof, Nov. 8. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

France invokes emergency powers after a dozen nights of rioting across the country. Local officials are authorized to impose curfews. The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford spent Monday night in a suburb where the citizens organized a successful take-back-the-streets campaign.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

`The republic is at a moment of truth'--that's how French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin described the situation in his country today. The government has invoked emergency powers to help deal with France's worst civil unrest in nearly four decades. Peter Ford is chief European correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Earlier today he described for us what the emergency decree does.

Mr. PETER FORD (Christian Science Monitor): The law means that prefects, who are the regional representatives of the central government, can impose curfews as and when they like and, also, empower police to search houses or any other property where they believe there might be weapons without a search warrant.

NORRIS: After almost two weeks of violence that started in one suburb, spread to 300 cities and towns, what happened overnight?

Mr. FORD: Well, the extent shrank a little bit. Only about 200--only about 215 towns were hit. The police were relatively upbeat because only 1,173 cars had been burned overnight; granted, that was 250 less than the night before, but it's still a fair number. And only 330 people were arrested, which was down from nearer 400. It's hard to tell, frankly, what's going to happen, but I would think that if the curfews have the effect that they're intended to and if the tendency away from attacking buildings continues and towards simply torching cars and running, that this is going to die down perhaps by the end of the week.

NORRIS: Does this suggest that we can chalk this up to aggressive policing, or has there been some sort of street-level diplomacy to get these angry young men to work out their issues in another form or another way?

Mr. FORD: There's no street-level diplomacy whatsoever on the part of the authorities. I mean, part of the problem is that the police in these poor, heavily migrant, heavily unemployed districts are pretty heavy-handed. The sort of diplomacy that happens is happening on the street between community associations, between local municipal authorities--mosques, for example--and the young people involved in this.

NORRIS: I gather you saw an example of that in Grenyee(ph), a suburb right outside of Paris, where you spent some time. What happened there?

Mr. FORD: That's very interesting. Well, Grenyee is very typical of the sort of place where violence has hit: heavy immigration, heavy unemployment, bad poverty, substandard housing, a lot of arson and a lot of violence. The municipal authorities, the mosque and local community associations got themselves together and organized networks of ordinary citizens and municipal employees to basically reclaim the streets. Some people were deputed to each school, each municipal building, like a swimming pool, and they slept there to dissuade arsonists from trying to break in and burn the places down.

Young Muslim men from the mosque spent the night wandering the streets and, if they came across people who looked like they were going to be causing trouble, trying to talk them out of it. On the night before, for example, Nuradeen(ph), a young man that I met, who was an absolute epitome of a young French Muslim--sandals, jalabot(ph), jersey over the top of that, woolen hat, black-and-white checkered kufi on his head--he bumped into a guy in a hooded sweatshirt carrying a can of gasoline the night before, and he talked him out of it. He said, you know, `What is the point of burning the schools that our little brothers and sisters learn to read and write in? What is the point in burning your neighbor's car and the buses that we all need to go to work in?' And it worked.

And I found it, frankly, quite inspiring to see municipal employees guarding their schools. I mean, one of them said to me, `Well, we're here as public servants. That's our job, to defend schools.' But to see a municipal gardener, the dinner lady who serves lunch at the canteen in that school sitting in this big gym of the primary school, with all the lights blazing in the middle of the night, defying the vandals to come and burn them down, it was really quite impressive.

NORRIS: Peter Ford, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. FORD: You're welcome.

NORRIS: Peter Ford is the chief European correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

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