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Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
French suburbs under siege
Riot in Toulouse, December 1998
France's suburbs are plagued by crime and violence
By Andrew North in Paris

"Suburbs - a hot summer?" asked the front page headline on a recent edition of the daily Le Parisien.

This was not idle speculation as to how affluent suburban residents would cope with the sweltering heat of July and August.

Even when we have two gangs that fight each other, when the police come, they re-unify against the police

Professor Alain Bauer
In France the suburbs, or banlieue, are the equivalent of America and Britain's inner cities - home to the poorest members of society, with high concentrations of immigrant groups - and plagued by crime and violence, much of it committed by young people.

The number of these problem suburbs has doubled to 1,200 in the past 10 years and increasingly the authorities seem at a loss as to how to deal with them.

It was the bleak and often violent 1996 film, La Haine, that brought conditions in the banlieue to wider attention.

Set in a rundown Parisian suburb, the poor residents white French and people of North and West African origin have become alienated from society at large and see the state not as a source of help, but only as a threat.

This sense of alienation is at the root of the problem in real life, according to Professor Alain Bauer, an expert on policing and urban violence at Sorbonne university.

So much so that when violence flares between the authorities and banlieue residents, other divisions - including race - are forgotten.

"Even when we have two gangs that fight each other, when the police come, they re-unify against the police," Professor Bauer says.

Problem Trappes

One of these problem suburbs is Trappes, a town of about 30,000 people to the west of Paris, of whom about two-thirds are of immigrant origin.

A short distance away is the palace of Versailles and it is surrounded by affluent, mainly white areas.

But the decline of the nearby industrial zone that brought immigrant workers to Trappes in the 1960s and 1970s has left an area of severe deprivation and one which now has the worst record of violence in the western Paris region.

They throw stones and bottles all the time

Trappes Chief of Police
Almost every night, cars are set alight in the streets between the crumbling apartment blocks in which most people live.

Police on patrol come under frequent attack.

"They throw stones and bottles all the time," said Christian Meyer, chief of police in Trappes. He says his police station has also been fire-bombed on several occasions.

Mr Meyer says youths of Moroccan and Algerian origin are largely responsible. He says they sometimes try to compare themselves to the Palestinians fighting the Israelis.

In some suburbs, rates of youth crime have risen by 40% in the past two years.

Child curfew

The police are often powerless, admits Philippe Thevenard, deputy chief of police for the Yvelines district, which includes Trappes.

"If they are under 13 years old, and many are, there's nothing we can do under French law," he says.

Recently, the town of Orleans in central France decided to adopt its own solution and introduced an 11pm curfew for children of 13 and under. Several other cities have followed suit.

Mr Thevenard says a curfew would help in Trappes, and several local residents told the BBC they agreed. Some had young children who had been involved in violence.

However, they said addressing the causes of the town's deprivation should be a higher priority.

Mohammed, a Moroccan-born father of two boys, said he wanted to see more investment in education and training to give young people a better chance of finding jobs.

He said the authorities also needed to do more to tackle what he says is racial discrimination against Arabs, which prevents them from getting the jobs they need.

See also:

10 Jul 01 | Europe
French child curfew criticised
01 Jan 98 | World
New Year riots in France
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