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France Still Dealing with Repercussions of Race Riots

  • Nina-Maria Potts

Following the rioting by disadvantaged young people in France last fall, the French government tried to institute a law making it easier for young people, to get- and lose- jobs.

That idea fell apart this week following huge protests by students and workers. Now the government says it will try other ideas of to help the young who are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Five months after the rioting, there are warnings that nothing has changed. Nina-Maria Potts has this report.

This is Clichy-Sous-Bois, the Paris suburb, where this winter's riots first began. Five months on, the cameras are long gone, the streets seem calm. Residents say beneath the surface, the racial scars have barely healed.

Samir Mihi, heads up a charity for the victims' families. He is employed by the local town hall to reach out to young North African immigrants.

In the middle of our interview with Samir Mihi, the racial tension beneath the surface in Clichy- Sous-Bois bubbled into view.

A woman out walking her dog berated him, questioning his right to speak for France -- an everyday occurrence he blames on latent racism within the white community.

"Of course, my country is France, madam ..... (Mihi turns to camera) ... well, there you go, here they are, the racists in France -- it bothers her to know the truth," he says.

The mainly North African and Arab Muslims living in these dilapidated housing projects where unemployment is high-say racism and discrimination are a fact of life.

BenYoussef Bouzidi lives with his wife and three children in the heart of what he calls the "ghetto." During the riots, they could hear the crossfire and see the burning cars across the street.

A Moroccan by birth, BenYoussef does not have French citizenship; in his 24 years in France, he has never had a fixed job, despite holding high school diplomas. The experience has left him wondering what being French really means:

"The third and fourth generation of immigrants feel like they've been abandoned by the governing class. It's not normal. We're French, or we're not .... so a hundred per cent French or not at all," he says.

The Bouzidi family live on the seventh floor. The elevator hasn't worked properly in four years, and they once went without electricity for four months.

Many residents here say poor living conditions contributed to what they carefully call their 'social revolt'. Five months on, and there's a growing sense of anger and frustration against a government failing to make good on its promises.

Those promises include better education in designated trouble spots; special economic zones giving tax breaks to companies which set up locally to boost employment; and more money for local associations.

In central Paris, Vice President of the National Assembly, Eric Raoult, rejects the accusation his ruling party's done nothing since the riots.

He says state funding to Clichy-Sous-Bois has risen by 170 percent. "I think it's not true to say there is nothing. It takes time to re-build -- it's not a question of weeks, but months, maybe one year... We have the necessity to respect law and order. We don't have any future when you put fire to the car of your neighbor: first, the respect. Secondly, the French government wants to give jobs."

If immigrants in the suburbs feel betrayed by the government, so too do the police who were on the front line of the November riots, police officers say their initial calls for back-up were ignored by a government too petrified to act.

Michel Thooris, "Action Police", Police Trade Union says, "I think there is really a very strong feeling of resentment among French police officers, who feel they are society's firemen. The government was very worried about having the army intervene, or having perhaps a more muscular response, to this true civil war that was unfolding on French territory- We were their preference to avoid injuries on the other side, in the other camp."

The police say the suburbs are in the grip of radical Islam, and even as they speak of a need to inspire community trust, they fear infiltration.

"There is a danger that is manifest, and that is recruiting people who want to integrate themselves into the police," he says, "and profit from an opening of the national police to people from the suburbs, and in fact in order to infiltrate us, and use information and our training in the ranks, that you could have as a police officer, and to serve the cause of radical Islam, and destroy the French state from the inside".

If police ranks fear penetration, some French Muslim communities feel that same distrust in the other direction.

Imam Raouf Ben Halima is a member of a secretive Muslim sect, the Tablighi Jamaat, suspected by counter-terrorism officials of spreading fundamentalist Islam in Europe.

He claims his mosque places special emphasis on citizenship building, and instilling a respect for the French state in young Muslims, who often put religion above the law.

"The police have spies in all mosques, you see," he explains. "There are different ways of getting people to work for them, and they are informed of whatever happens in mosques. For example in our mosque, the people responsible, the director is regularly called to the police prefecture, saying this and this happened in your mosque, can you explain this, why is this happening, so they know everything about what's going on ..... Islam is treated like something dangerous."

In Clichy-Sous-Bois, residents fear no one is sure the peace will hold.

Samir Mihi is fearful. "The calm is very volatile, you don't know when it might end, and the people around Clichy are very attentive to the latest developments, keeping their ears glued to the ground, they want to know where things stand, especially relative to the police, these revolts, these upheavals could be triggered again, if there ever was an event of this significance again."

Few would disagree the suburbs could erupt again. For now, there appear to be no short-term solutions for a long-term problem, which is making for a very nervous France.

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