Violence Overshadows Upcoming French Elections
Last November, a wave of violence engulfed the suburbs of many French cities. Crowds of young men, most of them unemployed and from immigrant families, burned cars and fought with police in protest against poor living conditions and what they said was institutional racism.
French politicians promised to improve conditions and crack down on crime. But reports of daily attacks on police and rising crime figures have many in France wondering if anything has changed.
Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The largely immigrant community of Saint-Denis, on the northern outskirts of Paris, was in turmoil last November.
(Soundbite of gunshots)
BEARDSLEY: Youths burned cars, destroyed shops and threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who responded with plastic bullets.
On a warm fall day almost a year later, the streets of Saint-Denis are filled with shoppers and pedestrians. There are women wearing Muslim headscarves with small children in tow and men clad in colorful African dress.
Forty-two-year-old Algerian immigrant and mother of two, Hamama Abubackar(ph) says she feels safer now because there are a lot more police in the area.
Ms. HAMAMA ABUBACKAR (Resident, Saint-Denis): (Through translator) Before you couldn't even talk on your cell phone in public because of the hoodlums around here - and believe me, there are plenty of them - wouldn't hesitate to just grab it from you and hit you. Now I can at least pull out my phone, but I'm still careful.
(Soundbite of traffic)
BEARDSLEY: After last fall's violence, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now hoping to become the next French president, promised to bolster security in places like Saint-Denis. Today, police are visible everywhere on bicycles, in patrol cars and on foot.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
BEARDSLEY: Shopkeeper Sofia Toitee(ph) stands in front of her clothing store talking to a customer. Toitee says last year rioters broke her windows.
Ms. SOFIA TOITEE (Shopkeeper, Saint-Denis): (Through translator) It's better now for sure, but for how long I don't know. Fundamentally, nothing has changed. There's insecurity in Saint-Denis, and that hurts businesses because people don't come out shopping anymore.
BEARDSLEY: Two weeks ago a gang of about 20 youths ambushed two police officers and beat one of them close to death. Then the newspaper Le Monde published a confidential memo sent by a Saint-Denis city official to the Interior Ministry. It said youth crime was up more than 10 percent in the community since January and that officials were at a loss over what to do. The newspaper also listed another 27 suburban counties nationwide where youth crime was up 10 to 15 percent since last year.
Opposition socialists say this is proof that Sarkozy's tough security measures have been a failure. They say the French government needs to address the social causes of youth crime. Interior Minister Sarkozy blamed French judges for the rise in crime figures, saying they were too soft on juvenile offenders.
Mr. NICOLAS SARKOZY (Minister of the Interior, France): (Through translator) In the face of more frequent and more violent crime in Saint-Denis, I don't understand why the number of people incarcerated is down. How do you want the police to do their job if there are 15 percent fewer delinquents being sent to prison?
BEARDSLEY: French magistrates have accused Sarkozy of tampering with the independence of the judiciary, but polls show the public supports him. And while no police official would agree to be interviewed for this story, the main police union backed Sarkozy, saying too many repeat offenders were out on the streets.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
BEARDSLEY: It's late afternoon in Saint-Denis and the mothers with children have mostly gone home, replaced by young men hanging out on street corners. Twenty-four-year-old Curtis Jackson(ph) is standing with his friends. Not far from them is a group of police officers.
Mr. CURTIS JACKSON (Resident, Seine-Saint-Denis): Nothing has changed. The police are still provoking us as much as possible. Look at them over there. We do nothing, and they come here and hassle us. They ask us for ID cards; and then if we're insolent, they haul us in. What happened to those two policemen? They were looking for it and they got what they deserved.
BEARDSLEY: The troublesome suburbs are back on the front pages and have been thrust into the middle of the French presidential campaign. Meanwhile, 12 people have been arrested on suspicion of attacking the two policemen. Several are minors and all have prior criminal records.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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