The Magazine

Another French Revolution?

The rioters and their admirers--on the right and the left.

Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By MICHEL GURFINKIEL
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Mama Galledou, a 26-year-old student from Senegal, had just completed work on her degree in nutrition at the Saint Jerome Faculty of Science and Technology in Marseille. She will probably never lead a normal life again--if she survives at all: She was nearly burned alive on October 28 as she was traveling by bus through Marseille's 13th district, where the Saint Jerome campus is located. It was 9:00 P.M. The bus was almost empty. At the bus stop near Cité des Lilas, a public housing estate, three young men had earlier blocked the doors and asked the driver to wait for their friends. The driver obliged for a minute or two, and then got impatient, shut the doors, and left. The youths shouted that they would take their revenge. So they did, a bit later on, as the bus was driving the same road back and stopped again at Cité des Lilas. Two of the boys got on by the rear entrance, sprinkled gasoline, and set it alight. The horrified passengers rushed out. Somehow, Galledou's clothes caught fire. According to one witness, "it was as if someone peeled her skin with an invisible knife: from a black woman she was turning into a white one." At the local hospital, they reported burns over 62 percent of her body. She remains in a coma, fighting to survive.

Galledou's tragic fate is a microcosm of the crisis now engulfing France. In recent weeks, torching buses has suddenly become prevalent in the Paris suburbs and other urban areas. Just two days before the attack in Marseille, Le Monde, the country's authoritative (if left-wing) paper of record, ran a front-page story about this new development and noted that it usually requires a much higher level of organization and discipline than casual car torching. In Bagnolet, on October 25, a gang of ten torched a night bus on the 122 line (in Seine-Saint-Denis, a northeastern suburb of Paris). In Nanterre, Hauts-de-Seine (the western suburbs), a similar attack took place the same day on a bus on the 258 line. On October 22, a bus was torched at Grigny, Essonne (the southern suburbs). As a result, the local company in charge of public transportation suspended night traffic on no fewer than 17 bus lines. It remains to be seen whether the attackers in Marseille--six suspects have been arrested--were just teenagers perpetrating a copycat crime, or if they were connected with a network.

There have also been cases of organized large-scale stoning, or caillassage, as it is called in contemporary French slang: On October 25, a group of 50 people or more stoned private cars on National Road 445 near Grigny, an important suburban link. National security police (CRS) had to be sent in, as well as the Anti-Crime Brigade (BAC), France's toughest cops. And consider, too, the organized attacks this fall on policemen, firemen, and other public security personnel. On September 19, two CRS officers were chased by threatening youths at the Tarterets housing project in Corbeil, Essonne. Ten days later, on September 29, a man described as "insane" opened fire on a CRS company at Clichy-la-Garenne, Hauts-de-Seine. On October 1, seven policemen were chased and wounded at Mureaux, a more distant suburb west of Paris. Similar incidents occurred, almost routinely, throughout the month of October.

More often than not, the CRS or police were not just attacked but ambushed. "One gets the feeling that war orders have been issued against the cops," wrote Le Nouvel Observateur, the liberal weekly, on November 1. Cyrille Brown, secretary general of the leftist CGT bus drivers union, insisted: "What we have now are organized attacks." Michel Thooris, a spokesman for Action Police, a conservative police union, expressed the view that "this is not just a matter of angry unemployed youths who get violent at times," but "something carefully planned."

The public-housing projects that gradually burgeoned around most French cities in the second half of the 20th century now serve as strongholds and training grounds for these violent gangs. After the incident on National Road 455, the stone-throwers were rolled back into the neighboring projects, but there was no further pursuit. One police source confided to Le Monde that security forces were actually "discouraged" from making incursions into those neighborhoods, except on rare occasions. The source went on: "It is a terrible mistake. Since we avoid going inside, where they are, they attack us outside, where we are."