FRANCE

Why 112 cars are burning every day

A year after the Paris riots violence and despair continue to grip the immigrant suburbs

FLAMES lick around a burning car on a tiny telephone screen. Omar, 17, a veteran of France’s suburban riots, replayed the sequence with pride. “It was great. We did lots of them and then we went out and torched more the next day.”Omar, whose parents immigrated from Mali, was savouring memories of the revolt that erupted 12 months ago from his home, the Chêne Pointu estate in Clichy-sous-Bois, in the eastern outskirts of Paris. “We’re ready for it again. In fact it hasn’t stopped,” he added.

 

Before next week’s anniversary of the Clichy riots, the violence and despair on the estates are again to the fore. Despite a promised renaissance, little has changed, and the lid could blow at any moment.

The figures are stark. An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France so far this year and there have been 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services. Nearly 3,000 police officers have been injured in clashes this year. Officers have been badly injured in four ambushes in the Paris outskirts since September. Some police talk of open war with youths who are bent on more than vandalism.

“The thing that has changed over the past month is that they now want to kill us,” said Bruno Beschizza, the leader of Synergie, a union to which 40 per cent of officers belong. Action Police, a hardline union, said: “We are in a civil war, orchestrated by radical Islamists.”

Car-burning has become so routine on the estates that it has been eclipsed in news coverage by the violence against police. Sebastian Roche, a sociologist who has published a book on the riots, said that torching a vehicle had become a standard amusement. “There is an apprenticeship of destruction. Kids learn where the petrol tank is, how to make a petrol bomb,” he told The Times.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister who hopes to win the presidency next May, has once again taken the offensive, staging raids on the no-go areas and promising no mercy for the thugs who reign there.

With polls showing law and order as the top public concern, his presidential chances hang on his image as a tough cop.

M Sarkozy’s muscular approach is being challenged not just by Socialist opponents. President Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, his Prime Minister, are waging their own, softer, campaign to undermine the colleague whom they do not want to be president. M de Villepin called in community leaders this week and promised to accelerate hundreds of millions of pounds of measures that were promised last autumn to relieve the plight of the immigrant-dominated suburbs.

National politics seem far from Clichy, a leafy town of hulking apartment buildings only ten miles but a universe away from the Elysée Palace. However, the Interior Minister is cited by the estate youths as the symbol of their anger. “Sarko wants to wipe us out, clear us off the map,” said Rachid, 19. “They said they would help us after last year, but we’ve got nothing.”

Rachid is to attend a march next Friday for Zyed and Bouna, the teenagers whose deaths in an electrical station sparked the rioting that engulfed the Seine-Saint-Denis département, known from its registration number, 93, as le Neuf-Trois. The boys, aged 17 and 15, who were hiding from police when they were electrocuted, are seen in Clichy as martyrs. Amor Benna, 61, the Tunisian father of Zyed, appealed this week to the young to refrain from violence and use their votes for change. “I don’t want to see cars burning again,” he said from his home on the Chêne Pointu estate. But the unhappiness was understandable, said M Benna, a street cleaner. “The young were born here and they are French. But they have nothing. The real problem is work. If they had any these riots would not have happened.”

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