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Monday, January 16, 2006

Will the riots swell the ranks of jihadists in Europe?

By Christopher Dickey


Nov. 14, 2005 issue - Word of the deaths spread quickly through
Clichy-sous-Bois, a grim collection of housing projects an hour by train and
bus from the center of Paris. Two teenage boys had been electrocuted
while trying to hide near a transformer the night of Oct. 27. Rumor said
they were running from police. Soon, dozens of angry young men came from
the soulless high-rises looking for cops to fight and cars to burn on
streets named, as it happens, after heroes of French culture: boulevard
Emile Zola, allee Albert Camus, rue Picasso. Dead white men. "It's
Baghdad here," the rioters shouted. Night after night last week, rage
spread through the ghettos that ring Paris, then beyond to every corner of
France. When a tear-gas canister exploded near a mosque in
Clichy-sous-Bois on the fourth violent evening, a new cry went up. "Now this is
war," said one of the vandals. Others cried "jihad."

It was neither, in fact, and Paris—the capital known to tourists—was
not burning. But by using cell-phone text messages to coordinate their
incendiary flash-mobs, rioters in the city's suburbs managed to burn
thousands of cars, as well as buses, warehouses and stores. More than 200
people were arrested and there were many injuries, some serious, even if
by last weekend no one had been killed. (The Los Angeles riots of 1992,
by contrast, took the lives of more than 50 people.) What really shook
the French government, and badly, was its inability to contain the
metastasizing anger. Decades of French policies intended to force the
integration of immigrants and their children—and children's children—into
French society had failed, and no Plan B was apparent. Fears also grew
that in the age of terror, rage like this could swell the ranks of
radical Islamists in the heart of Europe.

The first and most obvious casualty was the reputation of French
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. He's been angling for the presidency in
2007, posturing as France's most confident can-do politician. During the
first days of violence, Sarkozy denounced the gangs burning cars as
"scum" and told them in effect to bring it on. They did with a vengeance,
and didn't stop. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who is Sarkozy's
main rival, reined him in publicly. Prodded by President Jacques
Chirac, the two of them eventually tried to show a united front behind the
slogan "Firmness and justice." That didn't work either.

The greatest challenge in the days to come is to keep the violent
fringe from winning even wider sympathy. There are more than 12 million
people of Muslim origin in Western Europe, roughly half of them in France.
Many have adapted easily and well to European life. But constant
tensions and deep resentments do remain, especially among those left behind
in blighted communities that others managed to escape. In a report
issued just days before the violence broke out, the French government
counted 751 neighborhoods deemed "sensitive urban zones." Most of the people
there have roots in Africa and Islam. Average unemployment is 21
percent, more than twice the national average, and rising. Among men under
25, the rate jumps to 36 percent. Disconnected from their past in the
Muslim world and uncertain about their future in Europe, they've come to
see themselves as citizens of nothing but "Neuf-trois," 93, the postal
code for the outer edges of the Paris urban area.

The alienation and anger in these neighborhoods is not new. Riots broke
out in the 1980s and 1990s, prompting new government programs supposed
to bring hope to the projects. But as memories of the violence faded,
so did funding. Outreach programs have been cut and neighborhood-based
police have been pulled out. "We haven't paid attention for such a long
time, there is a sense of abandonment," says French Sen. Dominique
Voynet, who represents the main conflict zone.

In Clichy-sous-Bois, where it all began, calm was restored after the
fourth night by young men from the local mosque. The government was
thankful and hopes similar measures can work elsewhere. Some analysts are
wary. Calling on mosques to restore order "validates the postulate that
Islam is the answer to everything," says Dounia Bouzar, author of
several books on French Muslims. Yet without the mosque, it would seem, the
only option for the people along allee Albert Camus is what the author
of "The Stranger" called "the tender indifference of the world."

With Tracy McNicoll in Clichy-sous-Bois and Eric Pape in Sevran

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc. URL:


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