BOBIGNY, FRANCE - Kamel Abderrahmane sweeps his eyes across the half-empty shelves and smashed cash registers at the Franprix grocery store in a Paris suburb. A lonely bottle of rum is still standing.
“They took the whiskey, the chips, the coke, everything. They went shopping,” 17-year-old Risshie Iedragith tells him of rioters who attacked his family’s store last Saturday, after anti-police protests spiraled into violence.
His Sri Lankan father is too distraught to check the damage on a business in which he sunk his fortune since immigrating to France at age 18.
“They destroyed my family’s whole life in 15 minutes,” Iedragith said.
Outrage and violence
An alleged assault on a young black man during a police identity check earlier this month has sparked outrage and violence in France, reviving echoes of 2005 rioting that shook the country.
But along with anger at police, the gritty, immigrant-heavy French suburbs are in the spotlight, with their poverty and soaring unemployment, their frustrations and high crime.
Yet the Paris suburb of Bobigny also highlights another reality. After the weekend mayhem and protests, a group of youngsters, including Abderrahmane, helped to clean up the mess.
“We need to create ties between the community and police,” says 25-year-old Abderrahmane, who heads a community youth association called Mejless. “We’ve always had this relationship between victim and aggressor that goes both ways.”
‘Justice for Theo’
The simmering tensions are captured in the graffiti scrawled on the tracks of the tramway linking Bobigny to the French capital. “Justice for Theo,” it reads, in reference to the 22-year-old black man whose alleged rape by police truncheon this month in the nearby suburb of Aulnay-Sous-Bois touched off the protests.
French President Francois Hollande visited him in the hospital, and he is now recuperating at home from serious rectal injuries. A police officer has been charged with rape and three others with assault. Authorities have also launched a separate investigation into claims one of the accused officers beat up another local young black man last month.
“Justice must be served,” Hollande said earlier this week, even as he denounced the rioting.
While some praise that call, observers say government efforts are coming up short.
“The government must condemn the particular case of Theo, but also note that this isn’t an isolated case,” said Dominique Sopo, president of anti-discrimination group SOS Racisme. “It’s experienced far too frequently by youngsters from tough neighborhoods and it must deliver answers.”
Allegations of excessive police violence and racism are nothing new. Anger erupted last summer after a black man died in police custody. In suburbs like Bobigny, many residents remember the deaths of two ethnic North African youngsters fleeing police in 2005 that touched off countrywide riots.
Watch: Anti-police Protests in France Underscore Chronic Grievances
Police-community ties broken
Part of the problem, experts and locals say, is lack of communication and ties between officers and the communities they are patrolling — a problem partly driven, some believe, by the eradication of neighborhood policing units under the previous conservative government.
“We have police officers who generally speaking don’t have urban backgrounds, who are not trained to interact with the public to decrease tensions and who are in situations where they have to deal with a defiant public,” said Jacques de Maillard, a professor and police expert at the University of Versailles. “So we have all the elements of a potential problem.”
While reports of police brutality are much higher in the U.S., he added, there are similarities.
“There is also a strong distrust of police among ethnic communities in France, and there are also riots,” de Maillard said. “And more and more in France, which is rather new, you have social mobilization.”
Concerns on both sides
Anti-discrimination activist Sopo, too, faults a broader system in which police are investigated internally, and many residents of the Paris suburbs believe they have little recourse to justice.
Police have their own sets of concerns. Last October, hundreds took to the streets saying they were underequipped, overworked and under attack — not only by potential terrorists and criminals, but also by angry, disenfranchised youngsters from places like Bobigny.
“Condemning all police officers is unjust” when it comes to Theo’s case, a police union head, Celine Berton, told France’s Europe 1 radio. “Police intervene when things go wrong — and with people who are hostile and resist our presence.”
Youngsters interviewed in Bobigny say they are no strangers to hostile confrontations with patrolling officers.
“One told us, inshallah [God willing] you will burn,’” said 18-year-old Assa Soukouna, describing an incident last summer when police hunting for children setting off firecrackers confronted her and her friends. They were doing nothing, she said, except sitting outside.
“I’ve been humiliated and verbally abused but never physically abused,” said activist Abderrahmane. “But it’s a minority of police.”
Neighborhood Mejless is battling other negative stereotypes of the suburbs. It gets youngsters involved in community development projects and organizes trips abroad to expand their horizons.
A set of otherwise drab concrete stairs is now covered with art, painted by local youth as part of a larger neighborhood initiative. Bright artwork also covers the wall of a neighborhood park, where young mothers push strollers on a sunny afternoon.
“We tell them if you want to do something you can do it,” founder Bintou Diarra-Soukouna said. “You have to believe, and if you do, it will help you succeed.