The French presidential elections, already taking place against the backdrop of last year's rioting in the suburbs of Paris, now have a further drama at their heart: the pitched battle yesterday at the Gare du Nord--a combined railway station and subway station in the heart of Paris. It all started with a routine ticket check of a 32-year-old illegal immigrant from the Congo. According to the interior ministry, the man has had "22 previous encounters with the police, many of them violent." He apparently reacted violently upon being asked to show his ticket and was being taken to a holding room within the station when almost 200 "youths" arrived to fight with the police. The station, an easy trip by metro from the suburbs where the rioting began 18 months ago, became a battlefield from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. All the candidates have now weighed in on yesterday's events. The Socialists of course used the occasion to denounce conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy's record as Minister of the Interior--France's top law enforcement position--these last five years. Julien Dray, a spokesman for Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, said the riots "illustrate the climate of tension, the violence, the gulf that now exists between the police and the population." Sarkozy reiterated his well known, no-nonsense approach towards delinquency, declaring: "To arrest someone because he is not paying [his subway fare]--for years, no one cared about this, but it is the job of [the police] to do this." He jabbed back at the Socialists: "If Ségolène Royal and the left want to side with people who don't pay for their train ticket, that's their choice." At best half-hearted supporters of the police, the Socialists now run the risk of being mistrusted by their voters, as in 2002, when Lionel Jospin got eliminated in the first round of the presidential election by ultra-right law-and-order candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

A man tries to break a shop window during riots at Paris' Gare du Nord station on 27 March.

(AFP/Jacques Demarthon)
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