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A Year After French Riots, Violence Flares in Banlieues

Monday, Oct. 16, 2006

A year after riots rocked the suburbs of French cities, French Police are denouncing what they see as coordinated attacks on their officers by Muslim youth in Paris's banlieues.

An official of one right-leaning French police union has even labeled the new round of attacks an "intifada" against French police.

The latest incident occurred Friday night and early Saturday morning in the Paris suburb of Epinay-sur-Seine, when police responding to reports of thievery were ambushed by a group of youths wielding stones and other weapons. One officer was injured when a stone hit him in the jaw, according to accounts in French newspapers.

The Independent reports the group that attacked police numbered "up to 50," while an Oct. 14 report in Le Monde (subscription required) put the group's size at 30 to 50.

The Independent notes that "previous incidents described as ambushes by the police, have later proved to be more confused an unplanned."

But the incident in Epinay-sur-Seine is not an isolated one. On Oct. 1, police conducting a routine traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Les Mureaux were attacked by a much larger mob of youths. An Oct. 2 Le Monde report (subscription required) put the size of the mob at 150. Seven police officers were injured by attackers wielding iron bars and stones, according to other reports.

Some Les Mureaux locals are disputing the police version of the story, claiming the driver of the car that the police stopped for not wearing a seatbelt was roughly treated by the officers.

But it's worth noting that in both incidents the police were apparently responding to reports of very real crimes. That fact seems to have been lost on many of those complaining about police treatment. It's eerily reminiscent of the situation that set off last year's riots -- the death of two young men by electrocution when they tried to hide from police in an electricity transformer. It was rarely noted during the rioting that the two men were being chased because the police happened upon them while they were attempting to break into a warehouse.

At the very least, it seems fair to say that the attitudes of much of the French press and political class toward law and order is tentative. The French newspapers are full of denouncements of the police reactions to the attacks on their officers.

On Oct. 4, for example, police conducted a very public raid on a housing project in Les Mureaux to look for some of those responsible for the Oct. 1 attack. The attacks were conducted with a full press gaggle in tow. Many are blaming the publicity-hungry French interior minister and presidential aspirant Nicolas Sarkozy for alerting the press to the raid. Indeed, Sarkozy is one of the few French politicians making a great show of support for the police.

Not so for the Mayor of Les Mureaux, who has condemned the police for aggressive tactics during the Oct. 4 raid. And not so for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who is demanding that Sarkozy, in conjunction with the French justice ministry, conduct a study of recent cases of police misconduct.

Some of the most serious allegations of police misconduct were made by those who were searched by police during the Oct. 4 raid of a Les Mureaux housing project. It seems clear that the police raided at least one apartment by mistake. Le Monde reports (subscription required) that the police apologized to one Muslim family after breaking down their door, searching their home and then realizing they had the wrong apartment.

But the same Le Monde story contains reports of police behavior that is simply hard to believe, especially given the fact that by all accounts several reporters and television cameras were present at the early morning raids.

Le Monde cites the account of a 17-year-old boy who says police pushed his mother to the ground, poured hot oil on her feet and threw food that was being prepared for a Ramadan meal around their apartment. And a female who is apparently a member of the same family claimed police put a gun to the head of her two-year-old son. The 17-year-old boy told the paper he wanted revenge for the police actions and the young mother said the police view "Arabs and blacks" as nothing more than "animals."

Whoever is telling the truth, it's clear France has a major problem. Either French police are perpetuating the alienation of Muslim youth and feeding a circle of violence through their brutality and racism, or either much of the young, poor Muslim population of France has so little respect for the laws and institutions of their home country that they are in open rebellion against police, and are using both physical attack and press propaganda in their battle. Or both.