Sarkozy Win Sparks White Riots

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Jacques Brinon / AP

A riot police officer argues with a protester during a demonstration at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, France, to protest against the Presidential election victory of right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, Monday May 7, 2007.

Fears that Sunday's Presidential election victory by law-and-order tough guy Nicolas Sarkozy would spark riots among the nation's disaffected have been realized — hundreds of hooded youths in cities across France have battled police nightly since the poll, smashing windows and torching cars as leaders from across the political spectrum vigorously denounce the violence and plead for calm. But this is hardly a reprise of the 2005 riots that swept France's blighted suburban housing projects: The current bedlam is taking place at the center of some of France's largest cities, and the participants are mostly white, educated and relatively comfortable middle class adherents of extreme-left and anti-globalization ideologies. "There are a few types from the projects mixing things up at the fringes, but most of these clashes involve young radicals and anarchists raging against a democratic election," says one member of France's security services. "This is extreme-left chic — mostly university students deciding to vandalize, fight cops, then go home."

The initial bouts of violence broke out Sunday night at the Bastille and Place de la Republique in Paris, just as thousands of Sarkozy supporters feted the victor at Place de la Concorde. Soon radicals in other French cities followed suit, resulting in what police tallied as, 730 cars torched, 78 cops wounded, and nearly 600 rioters arrested nationwide. On Monday night, marches in Paris against what protestors denounced as Sarkozy's hard-right, authoritarian and anti-immigrant policies swelled to up to 500, ultimately degenerating into clashes with police as they dispersed near Bastille. By midnight, nearly 100 had been arrested after trashing property in the area. Similar protests broke out in other French cities both nights, with violent altercations and arrests occurring in Nantes, Rennes, Caen and Tours, and over 500 cars torched around the nation.

Some of that car-burning did take place in the vast housing projects that ring most French cities, but the vast majority of those suburbs have remained relatively calm since Sunday, even as youths from France's more well-heeled cities went berserk. That restraint in the projects wasn't out of any respect for the President-elect, however.

Sarkozy's provocative law-and-order rhetoric in 2005 made him the most hated man in France's projects. Indeed, the rioting of that year broke out only two days after Sarkozy's visits to Paris-area suburbs, where he used racially loaded language to denounce local "thugs" and vowed to "cleanse" the projects of troublemakers. Since then, Sarkozy has not set foot in the banlieue, leaving many concerned that the hostile divorce between France's new President and the disenfranchised citizens of the projects is complete.

The trailing Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal had warned, during the final hours of the Presidential campaign, that voting for "Nicolas Sarkozy is a dangerous choice," warning that a Sarkozy victory would unleash "violence and brutality" in the projects. Those comments left a lot of banlieue residents even more resentful of France's politics. "To hear the Socialist Presidential candidate cite us as this easily ignitable fuse that would inevitably explode if Sarkozy won was deeply offensive," says Salah Amokrane, a leftist member of Toulouse's municipal council who represents the city's project populations. "Pointing to us as the stereotypical hotheads, certain to run amok when something angers us — you'd expect a little bit more from the nominal progressive in the Presidential final."

The election of Sarkozy and what Amokrane calls his "divisive and inflammatory" stance towards the banlieue certainly increases the risk of conflic. But the next time the nation has occasion to stereotype the behavior of banlieuesards, Amokrane hopes France will remember just where the post-election violence actually broke out, and who was doing the rioting.