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Critics Complain About Lack of Change One Year After French Riots

Lisa Bryant

France is marking the first anniversary of rioting in the immigrant-heavy suburbs of Paris and there are worries the violence will occur again. The French government promised a series of measures to tackle the causes of last year's three weeks of unrest, but from the Paris suburb of Sevran, Lisa Bryant reports that critics argue little has changed.

Standing next to a sack of West African music CDs, Ricardo Elumbu watched the steady flow of commuters hurrying into the grimy train station at Sevran, a 20-minute ride from downtown Paris. Yellow leaves floated through the warm air, softening the edges of the towns cheerless housing projects where small groups of residents, most of them Africans, gathered outside to chat.

Elumbu took a break from trying to sell his CDs to talk to a reporter about what has changed in Sevran, a year after the riots. The answer according to Elumbu, a native Congolese, is not very much.

"There's no security in Sevran," Elumbu says. "For a few weeks after the riots, things calmed down. But then the police left and the youths started causing trouble again."

On Friday, residents of the nearby suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois staged a silent march commemorating the anniversary of the deaths of two African youths, who were reportedly fleeing police and accidentally electrocuted while hiding in an electrical power station. Their deaths unleashed three weeks of rioting across France. Roving gangs of youths burned thousands of cars, hundreds of buildings and clashed nightly with police.

Now, there are signs the violence is returning. Youngsters set several buses on fire around the Paris suburbs this week, after forcing passengers out, in one case at gunpoint. Other gangs attacked police with tear gas, sticks and rocks.

The French government has dispatched hundreds of riot police to the suburbs to prevent more unrest in the coming days. And French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has vowed to crack down on those who carried out the bus attacks.

As he showed a reporter around Sevran, Deputy Mayor Lakdar Femmami pointed out some of the targets of last year's violence, including an historic building that was set on fire. He predicted more unrest to come.

"I'm totally convinced of it for three reasons: It's the end of Ramadan, it's the anniversary of last year's riots and it's school vacation," said Femmami. There are palpable tensions. And there are already signs of unrest. Earlier this week Sevran youngsters clashed with those from a neighboring town.

Located 16 kilometers northeast of central Paris, Sevran possesses all the combustible elements that exploded last year. Roughly a third of its 47,000 residents are immigrants - most first and second generation Arabs and Africans. Unemployment is high, soaring to 35 percent in some places, more than three times the national average. And Sevran has no lack of angry youngsters.

"They're French, but they have one foot in their family's country and one foot in France," said Femmami says. "They're not loved in France and they're envied in their family's country. So they're rejected by both."

After last year's rioting, the French government vowed to address what were considered to be the root causes: Unemployment, discrimination and poverty in these working class, mainly immigrant, neighborhoods.

And during a press conference Thursday, France's conservative prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, announced new programs to give youngsters greater access to higher education.

But critics like sociologist Michel Wieviorka say French politicians have not done enough.

"They don't want to put money in the French suburbs," he said. "They don't want to help all these associations with social workers in the suburb helping people. And on the left, the opposition is also not very strong or interested in dealing with this issue."

Femmami, the Sevran politician agrees. He says the town is still waiting for government reimbursement for the damage caused by last years riots. And, he says, Sevran has yet to receive a promised increase in funding for social programs.

But with presidential elections only six months away, few in the volatile Paris suburbs are expecting bold new programs or reforms any time soon.

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