Thursday, November 10, 2005

Don't worry, Folks, It's Only Television

Cut my head off if I'm wrong here, but doesn't it seem that the "youths' in France act like children out of control? Oh, they are children out of control. Well, I meant 10 year olds. Oh, some of them are ten. Well, cut off my head anyway.

Yes, cut off my head so I don't have to see the French acting like impotent grandparents incapable of controlling children running amok.

Oh, we don't cut off each other's heads for no good reason. Well, then what is to be done?

Community looks for answers in riot-torn suburb

Published: November 10 2005 18:34 | Last updated: November 10 2005 18:34

Traumatised families streamed to the town hall on Wednesday evening for an "extraordinary" meeting called by the mayor of Rosny-sous-Bois, a town of 40,000 people scarred by the rioting that has swept through France. Policemen stood watch outside the hall; two women handed out stickers, including one that said "Stop the Violence."

He moved on to defend his record, citing the investments in housing rehabilitation, job creation, and a youth centre, and saying the city would do more.

But not all the audience was convinced. "There are social issues, lack of housing and jobs, and there are issues of discrimination. The mayor usually recognises that," said El-Hassan Guerrab, head of the Muslim Association of Rosny, a cultural group that has been sending members to reason with the bands of youth.

Sitting in the audience, with his two teenage daughters, Mr Guerrab, a tall Moroccan man with a thin beard, pointed out that the mayor had thanked many associations for helping out during this crisis, yet omitted the MAR. "That, in itself, is a form of discrimination," he quipped.

[Waiting to meet with "youths."]

Sure enough, an hour or so later, a group of young, mostly black men, appeared. They were, for the most part, dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, and black rain jackets with large hoods. Happy to speak to reporters – and wanting above all to appear before cameras – they seemed obsessed with Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister who called the gangs "scum" and on Wednesday threatened to expel foreigners involved in the violence.

"He has to resign, he has to resign, that's our demand," they shouted.

Lamine, a 19-year-old school dropout who sometimes works as a pizza delivery boy, is the apparent leader. His family – his father married four times and has a total of 30 children – came from Senegal in 1980. The parking lot, he says, has become his refuge. "We're here, it's our territory, we watch," he said.

He admitted that he had been thrown out of school because of bad behaviour yet he insisted he should be offered better job opportunities. "I look for jobs but I'm discriminated against, someone with a French name is always favoured," he said.

Some of the youth expressed real grievances of largely Muslim immigrant communities in France. Others, however, were cheeky, speaking of the riots as a game that, much to their own surprise, had worked, provoking a political crisis.

"We tried to express ourselves differently but the only way to get attention and to get the cameras here is through rioting," said 20-year-old Karim, a French-born man of Algerian origin.

The real enemy of these young men, aged between 15 and 21, was government authority. "You burn state property because you want to make the government pay. But the government also has to compensate citizens if private property is destroyed," added Karim.

French insurers yesterday estimated the riots had caused €200m of damage.

Thanks to a heavier police presence in Rosny, and the threat that a curfew could be imposed, the riots have subsided in recent days. The youth said they could still be arrested but claimed not to be afraid of the police.

"If a curfew is imposed, they will detain us and we'll get angrier. They'll force us to go home but that's like going to prison," said one member of Lamine's group, who refused to give his name.

Suddenly, the young men heard that Mr Pernès, the mayor, was touring the town. They rushed out of the parking lot to speak to him. Some of them tried to be polite but asked, in a forceful tone, how he planned to respond to their demands.

Others were impertinent. "I won't speak with you," one of the younger kids told the mayor. Why, asked Mr Pernès. "I just don't like you, I just don't like the way you look," was the answer.

Another young man used the occasion to mock Mr Sarkozy. "Have you ever met Sarkozy," he asked the mayor. "Is he a really small man?"

With Mr Guerrab and his colleagues standing near him, the mayor tried to control his exasperation. He said he wanted to establish a dialogue with the youth – and might even invite television crews to film a discussion – but that silly remarks like these made his efforts harder.

He answered the more serious questions, acknowledging, for example, that it was a challenge for blacks from the poor suburbs to find jobs. But his overall message to the band was that the riots would make employers even more reluctant to hire young people like them. "If it is already difficult to find jobs, it's going to be even more difficult now," he said.

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