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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 November 2005, 21:36 GMT
French society at a crossroads
By Hugh Schofield
Paris

The next few days are going to be crucial.

It was to be predicted that the violence in the French suburbs would continue throughout the weekend.

Burning car in Aulnay
Hundreds of cars are being torched every night
But if the number of car-burnings remains in the high hundreds over the next few nights, then France will have entered a new and dangerous phase.

No longer will it be possible to argue that the violence is the extended fallout from the 27 October incident - the accidental electrocution of two youths in Clichy-sous-Bois.

'Intifada'

Once the two-week mark approaches, the events will start resembling the large-scale suburban uprising that doom-mongers have predicted for years.

Words like "intifada" will start being bandied around, and the stakes will suddenly be much higher.

There are two solid reasons for pessimism. The first is the way the rioters have seized on Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy as their elemental hate-figure.

To hear the words of the protesters, and indeed much of the reporting of the violence, one can sometimes get the impression that Mr Sarkozy actually created the unrest.

In fact his rhetoric, while undoubtedly uncompromising and hardline, has been wilfully misinterpreted, and not just by the rioters.

To describe the bands of youths rampaging through the suburbs as "yobs" or "rabble" - which he did - is not quite the same as describing all inhabitants of the suburbs as "scum", which is how it has sometimes come across in the media.

Nonetheless, legitimately or otherwise, the minister is now seen by many inhabitants of the suburbs - as well as the left-wing opposition - as part of the problem.

But if they believe there is the remotest chance of his standing down, then they are mistaken.

After initial doubts, Mr Sarkozy now has the backing of the rest of the government, and the longer the riots go on, the more he appears justified in his firm line. He will remain as the rioters' hate figure for some time yet.

Universal response

The other reason for pessimism is that the rioters can read in much of the reaction to their rampages a legitimisation of what they have done.

The universal press response - both national and international, left and right - has been to point out how the French model of integration has failed, and how the suburbs have become exploding cauldrons.

From every direction come calls for a new assessment, but some calls are stronger than others.

An editorialist in Le Monde, for example compared the riots to May 1968, and expressed the hope that just as the student uprising forced a major - and in the writer's view - positive change to French society, so will these. That is not exactly an encouragement for the violence to cease.

As for reasons for optimism, are there any?

The only answer is that the violence is going to have to stop some time, and maybe it will be sooner rather than later.

Perhaps the most the government can pray for is a cold snap accompanied by freezing sleet. Maybe that will put out the fires.




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