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Thursday, October 26, 2006

One year later, French 'banlieues' still smoulder

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France, Oct 25, 2006 (AFP) - A year after one of the most traumatic episodes in modern France, the conditions that touched off three weeks of suburban rioting remain firmly in place and there is widespread fear that a new outburst is only a question of time.

n the seedy "Cite des 3,000" estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois in the northeastern outskirts of Paris -- not far from the starting-point of the riots -- the same idle young men slouch against the walls, smoking cannabis, watching motorbikes make wheelies and eyeing passing cars for police.

Across the dual-carriageway a Renault garage that was burned out on day seven of the disturbances is still in ruins, and several families of gypsies have parked their caravans in the forecourt.

"Has anything changed? Look around you -- we're all still here. Nothing to do -- no jobs, and the police still harassing us," said Kiko, 23, who has just emerged from serving a jail sentence for fraud.

"I don't know when, but something is bound to blow up again. You get to the point where you don't care. It all builds up, and then you burst," said Ahmed, 22.

With the approach of the October 27 anniversary on Friday of the outbreak of the violence, a chorus of voices has been raised to warn of the inertia that still dogs French policy towards the "banlieues" -- the poor out-of-town neighbourhoods where black and Arab-origin communities are concentrated.

Police have raised the alarm over a recent string of ambushes in the Paris outskirts -- the latest on Sunday when a bus was torched -- and say they are increasingly the targets of physical attacks.

"It's like they want to kill," said Bruno Beschizza of the Synergie officers union.

Associations working with young "banlieusards" say their sense of alienation remains as strong as ever, fed by racial discrimination, poor housing and a rate of joblessness that hits 40 percent in some areas.

"Let's be realistic, we are still sitting on a powder keg," said Manuel Valls, the socialist mayor of Evry south of the capital.

Last year the powder keg exploded after the accidental deaths of two teenagers who hid from police in an electrical sub-station. In the following days rioting in Clichy-sous-Bois spread to other Paris suburbs, and then to towns and cities across France.

Day after day France was the top international news story, as audiences around the world watched television pictures of burning cars and schools, dramatic evidence of the failure of the country's "Republican" model of integration.

The violence ebbed after the government of President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency -- a measure not enacted since the Algerian war half a century earlier -- but by November 17, when normality resumed, more than 10,000 cars had been destroyed and 300 buildings damaged by fire.

Badly shaken by the crisis, the government promised conciliatory measures such as an extra 100 million euros ($125 million) for local associations, more places on training schemes and a new agency to fight discrimination in the workplace.

In March it pushed through parliament an Equal Opportunities Law enshrining many of these ideas and also including a radical new measure to loosen the conditions under which young people are hired and fired.

The aim of the First Employment Contract (CPE) was to provide jobs in the "banlieues" -- but it was abandoned after a wave of protests by mainly middle-class students who feared it would damage prospects for stable employment.

With six months to go to France's presidential election, the festering situation in the "banlieues" is certain to be one of the main campaign themes.

The opposition Socialist Party accuses Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy of being part of the problem -- because of his poisonous reputation in the "banlieues" and his uncompromising line on law and order.

Sarkozy retorts that it is left-wing welfare policies of 30 years that have led to the crisis -- and that a liberalised economy combined with positive discrimination is the only way to provide jobs and hope.

In the "Cite des 3000" there is little appetite for a new flare-up of rioting to mark the October 27 anniversary -- but if Sarkozy is elected that could be another matter.

"Sarko is the provocative element," said Kiko. "And if he is elected next year I warn you: people will be killed."
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