France Slow to Counter Rioting

Despite increased police powers and curfews, rioting continues in the suburbs outside of Paris and in other cities across the nation. Mike Pesca looks into what might explain the delay in getting the riots under control.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now to France. The rioting there is easing a bit. Police report that last night there were far fewer car burnings, yet it's still not peaceful. Why have the riots been so difficult for French police to control? NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

America and France both share a history of revolution and free speech, but the speech tends to be lengthier and the unrest seems less contained in France. Today, almost two weeks after fires and vandalism began, they continue. A mosque attacked and police fired upon are, of course, horrible but not necessarily unexpected, says French criminologist and government adviser Alain Bauer.

Mr. ALAIN BAUER (French Criminologist): In France, usually, we get all the riots for the last 20 years. We got 20 of them in 2003, 11 of them in 2004, and they usually are four to five days. So it's not extraordinary new.

PESCA: But those riots are typically localized and diffuse rather quickly. These riots are viral, spreading across the country, fueled by Web sites, text messages and, most significantly, a shared dissatisfaction among many young second- and third-generation Frenchmen. The way the French deal with the usual riot is through their highly trained Compagnie Republicaine de Securite, or CRS. Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has advised police forces internationally, says the CRS is as well-respected as any police force in the world.

Professor ROBERT McCRIE (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): Today, they are regarded as one of the world's best-trained forces for dealing with riots. Alas, in this situation, it appears they weren't mobilized rapidly enough or to the extent that they might have been.

PESCA: But the CRS has been deployed for some time now. The problem is that the current situation is far different from their usual task. Just as modern warfare has changed from two standing armies squaring off on a battlefield, the struggle with the protesters in France has become trying to stop small bands of rock-throwers who blend right into the community afterwards. This is the point where an American might say `Send in the National Guard.' That's not an option in France, explains Alain Bauer.

Mr. BAUER: We don't have national guards. It's the army or the police. We don't have anything in the middle.

PESCA: Robert McCrie wonders if then the army might have been an option.

Prof. McCRIE: The military could have been called upon to provide support, not to take up the role of policing but simply to be there as a force. The force that was provided was too few.

PESCA: But Bauer says that step would've been disastrous.

Mr. BAUER: I think the military option is a way to express that you are not in the riots or you are no more in the confrontation, you are in a war. And if the country is making war to its own population, it has to figure out that there was something wrong in the policies.

PESCA: It doesn't seem the French leaders want to engage in that uncomfortable discussion about race and class. But now, says Bauer and McCrie, the number-one tool to quell the rioting is communication. But you can't convincingly appeal to the rioters through the kind of tough talk that much of the citizenry wants to hear. There is, the security experts say, only so much the police can do; it is now up to the leaders to lead. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

BRAND: And for background on the riots, the origins of the spreading unrest and what France is doing in response, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

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