THE FRENCH USE THE EUPHEMISM "quartiers sensibles"--sensitive neighborhoods--for the troubled, predominantly Arab and African working-class suburbs of Paris and other cities that increasingly resemble a ticking bomb at the heart of their society.
One such sensitive neighborhood is Clichy-sous-Bois, nine miles northeast of Paris, where last week's string of nightly riots began. Two Muslim youths--one black, one Arab--were electrocuted at a power relay station on October 27. The circumstances are sketchy: Were the youths being chased by the police because they were suspects in a break-in? Were they being chased for no reason? Or were they--as Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy claims, and the preliminary report of the prosecutor has now confirmed--never pursued by the police at all?
For the time being, what is certain is that the rumor that innocent youths had died as a result of police harassment spread like wildfire. Local residents called their friends in other neighborhoods and urged them to join the upcoming fight against the state. In fact, the first people attacked by the mob were the firemen who went to the power relay station to rescue the youths. The firemen, greeted by a barrage of stones, could not treat the victims on the spot but retreated to their trucks and drove the youths to a nearby trauma center.
Later, some 400 young men started trashing the town, burning cars, vandalizing a school, a mall, the post office, the fire station, bus shelters. They even tried to enter the town hall but were prevented by police. Fighting broke out when 300 antiriot forces entered Clichy and were met with Molotov cocktails and stones and even a live gunshot.
Seven cops were injured, and witnesses described the scene as "guerrilla warfare." Philosopher Jean-François Mattei spoke of "urban barbarity." In the eight nights of rioting that, at this writing, have ensued, in Clichy-sous-Bois and other Paris suburbs, about 1,224 cars were burned and numerous youths arrested. Three journalists from French TV had to abandon their car after they were threatened by the mob, which proceeded to torch the car along with an auto dealership, a preschool, and a gym. Another four gunshots were fired at cops and firemen, and two commuter trains were attacked.
One police-union leader, writing to Interior Minister Sarkozy, declared, "A civil war is unfolding in Clichy-sous-Bois. We cannot handle the challenge any longer. Only the Army, trained and equipped for this type of mission, can intervene to stabilize the situation."
Yet despite all the national and international headlines they occasioned, last week's disturbances were no freak occurrence. For at least 15 years, the immigrant and first-generation suburbs around France's large and medium-sized cities have been out of control. Crime rates have gone through the roof: According to the Renseignements Généraux, a division of the police, 70,000 violent crimes have been recorded in urban settings since the beginning of the year. They include the torching of more than 28,000 cars and 17,500 trash bins. According to the Interior Ministry, some 9,000 police cars have been stoned by youths this year.
And property is not the only target. On October 27, the day the two died in Clichy-sous-Bois, three young thugs in another Paris suburb savagely killed a 56-year-old Frenchman who was photographing a lamppost. Plenty of witnesses were around, but none came forward to testify. The attackers were trying either to steal the man's digital camera or to "protect their turf" from an intruder. Ten days earlier, in Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of France's second largest city, Lyon, the police chased two teenagers on a stolen scooter and one fell and hurt his ankle. The rumor spread that he was in a coma because of the cops. A few nights of rioting ensued, with violent faceoffs between teens and police on the exact spot where similar, serious rioting occurred 15 years ago.
At least as worrisome as such intermittent flare-ups is what happens every day in these ethnic neighborhoods. Most have become a no-man's land where police scarcely venture and the law of the jungle prevails. Honest, law-abiding inhabitants feel abandoned. As Bally Bagayoko, deputy mayor of Saint-Denis, a working-class suburb of Paris, put it: "People have totally lost confidence in the police. In most cases, they don't even file a complaint." Sometimes judges are physically threatened or attacked.
What's more, none of this is any secret. It's years since the first chilling firsthand accounts of what goes on in the worst ethnic slums were published. As early as 1984, President François Mitterrand made "sensitive neighborhoods policy" the fourth priority of his government. In 1990, after the first Vaulx-en-Velin riots, the newsmagazine Le Point trumpeted the headline: "These neighborhoods are scaring France." Politicians warned that the events were just a foretaste of the explosions to come. Eight years later, in a report ordered by the Interior Ministry, two sociologists wrote: "Cops working in the difficult neighborhoods feel themselves to be, and are seen as, occupation forces in enemy territory."
A particularly fearsome firsthand account of life in a Muslim slum was a bestseller in 2002. Entitled Dans l'enfer des tournantes (In Gang Rape Hell), it recounts the life of a courageous French Muslim teenager, Samira Bellil, who was repeatedly gang-raped, and in order to survive became a "racaille" (hooligan), beating up other girls to get protection and respect. Teenage girls are the most frequent victims of violence, especially rape, which sometimes happens inside public schools. As one Tunisian mother testified recently, public schools turn out to be not a haven but one more nightmare for families. She lamented, "The Republic no longer protects its children." In fact, mothers sometimes enlist the toughest thugs to protect their daughters. The culture of violence is reinforced on every side, by the anti-police, anti-West gangsta rap kids listen to, and by the blogs where young thugs parade their exploits of arson or mugging at gunpoint, thereby becoming neighborhood "stars" and raising the stakes for other gangs.
An underground economy flourishes in the worst African and Muslim neighborhoods, with trafficking in drugs and stolen goods going on unimpeded and rival gangs fighting over loot. Communal tensions are equally pervasive, pitting white French (or "Gaulois") against Arab and Black, Black against Arab, and Muslim against Jew. In light of this, it is no coincidence that France saw a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2004 (970, well over 2 a day), most of them committed by young Muslims from the suburbs.
In extreme cases, these neighborhoods might as well be foreign countries, with their own laws and value systems. Thus, good students are treated as pariahs, while outlaws get respect. Matters have reached the point where some young "Gauloises" have testified that, in a kind of inverse assimilation process, they converted to Islam to escape harassment by Muslim thugs.
Some intellectuals speak of the Lebanonization of French society. Others speculate about civil war in ten years if nothing is done. Michel Gurfinkiel, editor of the news magazine Valeurs Actuelles, likens France today to the Weimar republic just before the rise of Nazism.
Interior Minister Sarkozy wants to turn a new leaf. He expresses determination to end the laissez-faire attitude toward the pathologies of the "banlieues sensibles" that has prevailed for decades, under governments of both left and right, with the possible exception of his own previous stint as interior minister, in 2002-04. Facing down rock throwers in Argenteuil, another hotspot, last week, he vowed to rid the suburbs of the "racaille."
Sarkozy has been widely criticized for using that term, even by members of his own party, who accuse him of adding fuel to the fire. Much hangs on the success of his Giuliani-like "zero tolerance" approach. As of now, he seems to be the only politician willing to tackle the thorny issues of immigration and security. Soon enough, French voters will have a chance to render their verdict on his policies: The current frontrunner in the presidential election of 2007 is none other than Sarkozy.
Olivier Guitta is a consultant on Middle Eastern and European affairs.