Inside riot zone

Print edition : December 02, 2005

VAIJU NARAVANE in Argenteuil, Aulnay-sous-Bois

DUSK is falling fast as I step off the RER or rapid suburban train network at Argenteuil, one of Paris' toughest suburbs, some 30 kilometres north of the city. Mehdi Lallaoui, writer and film-maker of Algerian origin who grew up in these parts, is waiting for me and we make our way cautiously up the overbridge that separates the cite (housing estate) from the railway track.

Over a hundred thousand people, mainly of North and West African origin, live here, massed in box-like apartments in tower blocks built on both sides of the "dalle" or central walkway. The structures date back to the 1960s and show their age - peeling paint, broken windows despite the onset of winter, graffiti-smeared walls, an erratic lift that stops only on floors nine and 19. The black stains left by Molotov cocktails, shattered beer bottles and the calcinated carcasses of several cars bear witness to the recent violence.

This evening, the police are taking no chances. They are massed together on the central parvis, a hundred-odd dark, menacing and helmeted figures, shatter-proof plastic shield in one hand, truncheon in the other. They remain clustered together, their body language is defensive and offensive at the same time, giving out a message of aggression and hostility. Groups of 10 go out on patrols in the area, leaving the bulk of their colleagues to occupy the central walkway.

Across the parvis, a scattered group of youngsters wearing the uniform of the cites - tennis shoes, sweat shirts or jogging suits, parkas with hoods pulled low over the forehead. The two groups eye each other warily. Both know that the smallest gesture on either side will bring down the fury of hell upon the estate, as it did the night before, when a coke can flung at a policeman became the signal for a collective charge. There is aggression and provocation on both sides. Over 60 cars were burnt in Argenteuil alone.

The youngsters, some of them barely 12, play cat and mouse with the police, lighting fires in garbage bins and running away, melting into the shadows of the ill-lit estate, calling their mates on their cell phones to do likewise on the other side. Their tactic of starting several small fires at once is successful, obliging the policemen to break formation. Small groups of youngsters armed with sticks, baseball bats, petrol bombs, stones and petanque balls then attack the dispersed policemen.

"We taunt them. We want to provoke them. They show us no respect. How can they expect us to respect them?" asks a strapping North African youth who refuses to give his name. He is articulate with a cultured voice and is the tacit spokesman of the group. "You would not expect a person like me to indulge in burning cars and buses, would you? I have gone to university and I have a Master's degree in economics and marketing. Where has it got me? I have no job, just a temporary post as a delivery boy. I don't like burning and mayhem. But this is the only way our voice will be heard. The contempt the administration and the police force reserve for us is astounding. We are treated like dogs. Well, in that case we end up behaving like whipped dogs pushed to the limit. And then they colonised us, tortured our grandfathers. I want revenge from this society."

It was in Argenteuil that French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy made the remarks that sparked off a furious reaction. Referring to high crime levels in immigrant suburbs, he said he would "hose down" the cites and get rid of the "scum".

The suburban malaise runs deep. Massive unemployment led to the creation of these ghettos, which have now become no-go zones for the police with drug-traffickers and criminal gangs laying down the law. "We get the worst teachers, our schools are under-equipped, and the school dropout rate is very high. In the absence of employment, young people are tempted by easy money and a life of crime. But all of us are not like that. Given half a chance and the right encouragement, we too would do well," the anonymous spokesman says.

Not everyone agrees. Valerie, a retired schoolteacher who taught in Aulnay, said she did her best but in the end threw in the towel. "They did not want to learn. Nothing interested them except the latest gadgets, clothes, shoes and they stole to buy what they wanted. I knew students who would hold up passengers on the RER at knife-point and take things off them - phones, jackets, even shoes. And I found the parents were just not present or had forgotten their parenting skills. A teacher is there to impart knowledge and to form character. But we cannot give a moral code to someone whose parents turn a blind eye to anti-social behaviour."

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