France in Flames

The French government has lifted a state of emergency imposed in November during the worst unrest in the country for nearly 40 years. Emergency measures - including powers to impose curfews and conduct police searches without warrants - formally ended on January 4 after an unprecedented 20 days of riots.

Almost 10,000 cars were torched and 3,000 people arrested in three weeks of urban violence across the country last year.

French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy inflamed a 'powder keg' problem with his right-wing anti-migrant rhetoric. Violent inner uprisings scarred several places with heavy concentrations of North and West African migrants in Paris, Lille, Dijon, Marseille, Nice, Strasbourg, Toulouse and Nantes and 300 other cities and towns. Reacting to the grave situation, Sarkozy, the outspoken political upstart with presidential ambitions, fuelled the flames with comments reminiscent of nazi Germany.

After three weeks of unrest:

one man was killed
10,000 cars torched
3,000 people arrested
17 people sentenced
more than 200 police and firefighters injured, including two officers who were shot in Paris
£150m worth of damage

But Sarkozy has seriously damaged his 'law and order' case by resorting to the language of discredited far Right leaders like Jean Marie Le Pen, speaking of cleaning the "scum" out of the suburbs "au Kärcher". That is the name of a German maker of pressure washers which have been used in recent years to spruce up the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, and the colonnade of St Peter's Square in the Vatican City.

The reaction to his outrageous Nazi-type proposal for industrial cleansing from the affected suburbs and the political Left has, predictably, been bad. But Sarkozy has also been criticised by the French equal opportunities minister, Azouz Begag. The the violent civil disorder - triggered by the deaths of two North African teenagers Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, who were accidentally electrocuted at an electricity sub-station in Clichy-sous-Bois while trying to avoid an identity search. The crisis has cruelly laid bare the inadequacies of the French 'integration' model. Ironically, Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson criticised France's response to the unrest, saying emergency powers would not help to resolve the problems.

Major cities covered by the new powers include Marseille, Strasbourg, Lyon, Toulouse and the capital. But in the Paris suburbs where the unrest first erupted, the local prefect said he had decided against a curfew because of a decrease in violence. A Communist mayor has told the government he will resign if a curfew is imposed in his Paris suburb.

Youths have burned cars and clashed with police citing racism, police brutality and discrimination as primary causes for their action. The government has been forced to acknowledge that the grim conditions in the suburbs - chronic high unemployment, racism, miserable housing and drugs - had much to do with the discontent.

President Jacques Chirac empathised with the plight of the dispossessed youth who cannot get a job because of racism when he asked, in a televised address to the nation: "How many CVs are thrown in the waste paper basket just because of the name or address of the applicant?" But he also said: "Many French people have difficulties but violence never solves anything."

Chirac has urged French companies and trade unions to encourage diversity and support employment for young people from deprived areas of the country.

The mayhem has compelled France to confront anger building for decades in neglected suburbs and among the French-born children of mainly African origin. Sarkozy's own surname tells us that his family is not originally from France and he should therefore be a lot more sensiitive to the grievances of migrants.

The uprisings started in Paris but quickly spread to other French cities. Paris resident, Mamadou Nyang, 19, wore a sweatshirt with the words: 'Dead for Nothing.' It's in memory of the dead boys, Bouna and Zyed. He said: ' I left school two years ago but have never had a job. As soon as I say my name and where I live, they tell me the vacancy has gone. I am happy to do any job, except be a policeman. I hate the police. As soon as they see Blacks or Arabs, they just try and cause trouble.' Bilal, aged 29, a Black civil servant, said: 'Even in my job, we are victimised. We have to work twice as hard as white French people. That's the problem with France - institutional racism. I don't approve of the violence but it's the only way of sounding the alarm. We demand equality of opportunity. The police did nothing to stop those kids running 1,000 metres to their deaths at an electricity sub-station. If they want peace, we need justice. Respect must be mutual.'

Mehmet Altun, 15, said: 'The police come and hassle us all the time. They ask us for our papers 10 times a day. They treat us like delinquents - especially [Interior Minister Nicolas] Sarkozy. That's not the answer.'

Mr Sarkozy has cancelled a visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has postponed going to Canada, and President Jacques Chirac, who bravely defied American President George Bush and opposed the invasion of Iraq, has warned that a lack of dialogue and respect for the mainly Muslim protestors could produce a "dangerous situation".

Not since the Corsicans rejected Sarkozy's plans for autonomy in 2003 has the interior minister faced such a setback. How he handles it will affect his chances of succeeding Mr Chirac in 2007. But the three protagonists in this drama - Mr Sarkozy, his rival for future leadership of the Right, Mr de Villepin, and the president - are facing a challenge from which none of them can draw much short-term advantage. In suburbs such as Clichy-sous-Bois, where the uprisings began, they are facing the consequences of decades of flawed race policies and an economy that has failed to produce enough jobs for migrants. The

Left-wing newspaper, L'Humanite commented: "Whatever the government says, the events of recent days do not reflect an isolated problem of suburban crime, but a terrible failure of the policy of urban and social segregation that has been imposed for years on the people of these districts. The suburbs are not a special case. The suburbs are France, the France that suffers at work, is unemployed ... the France of discrimination, bad housing, poor public services. Unless we give the suburbs hope, the whole country will be unable to develop and the equality that republican principles are founded upon will be nothing more than a piece of paper. The future of the French model of social justice - of all our futures - lies in the suburbs. That is why Nicolas Sarkozy wants to break them... Rather than endless images of burnt cars, we must give a voice to the suburbs. And we must listen to them.!"
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