The Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel has been plagued for several days by riots and the violence has spread to other areas as well. The problem stems from an accident at an intersection in which a motorcycle (which authorities say was speeding) collided with a police car killing the two people on the smaller vehicle, both of whom were teenagers of North African descent.
Based on the pretext that this was no accident — i.e., the policemen were waiting around for a motorcycle to run into — the local “youths” (predominantly Arab and/or Muslim) began looting and setting fires. A day-care center was one of the targets. When police and fire fighters arrived, the youths fired at them with hunting rifles. The police union says that the violence is more intense than it was during the infamous 2005 riots due to the widespread use of firearms.
The Sarkozy government reacted initially by calling for calm. However, once it became clear that police officers and fire fighters were being shot, the government escalated its rhetoric and vowed to take tough measures against those who engage in the violence. As Interior Minister in the prior government, Sarkozy also talked tough, and even referred to the rioters as “scum.” However, the government did little to assert its authority over the lawless Paris suburbs.
Will it do so this time? Sarkozy and current Interior Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie (the first woman to hold this position) are talking a good game. Alliot-Marie sees good local policing — the cop walking the beat — as the key to long-term success. Whether this will be sufficient remains to be seen. Bringing a critical mass of the present rioters to justice seems like a pre-requisite to progress. Whether this will happen also remains to be seen.
In one sense the riots represent a more difficult problem for Sarkozy than striking government workers or unhappy students and teachers. That’s because many of the rioters feel they have no stake in France and, indeed, have great antipathy for the country. Arguably, though, the problem is less urgent than others on Sarkozy’s plate because most French citizens don’t particularly care about crime in suburban slums and may be willing to tolerate occasional rioting as long as it is contained.
UPDATE: Things were somewhat less violent on Tuesday night but according to the Washington Post, scattered violence was reported in Villiers-le-Bel, and there were reports of unrest elsewhere, including car fires and a library burning in the southern city of Toulouse.
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