Why Paris Is Burning

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Officially, the French state doesn't recognize minorities, only citizens of France, all of them equal under the law. But that republican ideal has seemed especially hollow over the past week as the children of impoverished, largely Muslim immigrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa fought running battles with police throughout the banlieues, or suburbs, to the east and north of the French capital. On Sunday night, tear gas from a police canister filled the air in a Muslim prayer hall, sending worshipers out into the street gasping for air—and enraged at an act of desecration for which the police denied responsibility. By Wednesday, after five nights of violence, more than three dozen arrests had been made as the rioting spread from community to community—one official even warned that it threatened to become an "insurrection." And France's political class was embroiled in a fierce debate over how best to put a lid on their boiling banlieues.

Anger and resentment have been long brewing in the belt of immigrant misery that surrounds Paris, where jobs are rare and poverty rampant. It exploded last Thursday night when two teenagers in the northeastern banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois were electrocuted after they climbed into a electric relay station and touched a high-voltage transformer. The youths—one Malian, the other Tunisian—had apparently thought they were being chased by police after fleeing a police identity check. Though a preliminary investigation has found that they weren't being pursued, their senseless deaths were quickly blamed on the police. After two nights of violence, hundreds marched through Clichy-sous-Bois on Saturday morning, many of them wearing white t-shirts with the slogan "Mort Pour Rien"—dead for no reason.

More Violence Feared

The rapid spread of the violence showed that it was about more than the death of the two teenagers. Unemployment in many of these communities runs at 30 to 40 percent, even higher among young people. The banlieues are monuments to France's failure to integrate large parts of its Muslim population, despite many of them being from families that have lived in France for two or three generations.

France's tough-talking Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, blamed the trouble on "riffraff" and years of neglect of the problem by Socialist governments. For many, though, he was throwing salt into an open wound. The families of the electrocuted youths refused Sarkozy's offer to meet with them, and his hard-nosed approach drew criticism even from within his government. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a probable rival to Sarkozy in the race to represent France's conservatives in the 2007 presidential election, arranged a meeting with the families, and calls for calm were resonating from all sides of the political spectrum. On Wednesday night the fires were burning again in the banlieues, consuming three dozen cars, two buses, two primary schools and an auto showroom. Government ministers were meeting in crisis session on Thursday, increasingly wary of the prospect that the violence, which until now has spread by what one official called "mimickry," could take on a more organized form. Says a French interior ministry official: "If these things continue and spread to places like Lyon, Toulouse and Strasbourg, we'll have a state of insurrection." If that happens, the real debate about how to integrate France's poor people will be postponed again. And the fire next time could be even worse.