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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 12:11 GMT
Creches suffer in French riots
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

About 40 schools and creches have been attacked by arsonists in the riots which erupted at the end of October - a new phenomenon in France's history of urban unrest.

Woman carries dolls out of the Broca nursery school in Fives, Lille
Some riot-hit nurseries have had to disperse their babies

Dolls were being evacuated from the creche in Fives, a rundown district of Lille near France's Belgian border, the day after a petrol bomb burnt out the empty sleeping area and scorched activity rooms.

Little remained of the public nursery school in Acheres, west of Paris, other than the snapshots of toddlers stuck to a wall after fire brought down a roof and devoured rooms in the night.

When a blazing car was rammed up against the nursery in Mirail, in the southern city of Toulouse, the rioters did more than trash a building - they shattered a small community.

The loss of a familiar environment with its toys, drawings and plants traumatised the children, one teacher told a community web forum.

"We are going to be split up around several nurseries, brothers and sisters are going to be separated and parents will have to change their travel arrangements," she said.

Few would suggest the attacks on pre-school facilities are co-ordinated - at most they may be "copycat" attacks. But what is clear is that the wide-scale targeting of such places is something quite new.

"It is exceptional to have public spaces devastated like this," Philippe Niemec, secretary general of French teachers' union SE-UNSA, told the BBC News website.

Easy targets

When police announced on 17 November that the national situation had returned to "normal", they based their conclusion on the fact that only 98 vehicles had been burnt overnight - the "nightly average" for France.

Burning car spreads flames around the Mirail nursery, Toulouse

Empty cars are a traditional target for urban violence in France as a symbol of wealth and social mobility, and attacks upon them - some 9,000 - have dominated the headlines.

French schools, on the other hand, are intended to provide a "social elevator" for children with roots in the immigrant communities.

Creches and nurseries on the housing estates are designed to play a similar role in allowing mothers to pursue careers.

The simplest explanation why rioters, many of them juveniles, attacked creches and schools is that they could.

"It's not the school as such being targeted by the arsonists but the fact that it is simply a public space easier to hit than a station, a cinema or a museum," Mr Niemec says.

Creches and nurseries are even more vulnerable because they are located closer to the heart of their districts.

And because they contain fewer computers and audio-visual aids, they enjoy less protection.

Precious assets

The tragedy is that such facilities are highly appreciated by their immediate communities, as Mr Niemec and others testify.

Public creches from age 3 months are means-tested; private creches also exist
"Creches familiales" are day centres where child-carers collect babies
Public nurseries are free from 3 to 6 years

Municipal creches, which take on babies from the age of three months, are free of charge for those on the lowest of incomes.

Nursery schools are free to all children from the age of three, and sometimes younger.

According to an open letter from the mayor of Fleury-Merogis, a town south of Paris, when its "creche familiale" was burnt down, numerous families lost an "asset acquired with difficulty".

Staff were shocked to see "all their work go up in smoke", the mayor's office told the BBC News website.

The Mirail teacher said her nursery had "functioned well, seeking to help children of all cultures and religions from an early age" while their parents "slaved away to give their families a chance".

Schools take the blame

Like the Toulouse toddlers, children in Fives were relocated to other nurseries while the city of Lille set about the task of rebuilding.

Francois Rousseau, a city press officer, told the BBC News website that, despite the attacks, community relations in Lille were much better than in the suburbs around Paris, for example.

District mayors went out at night to talk to the rioters and, largely thanks to this dialogue, the city escaped the kind of clashes with police seen elsewhere.

Yet a nursery was burnt and two schools damaged by the rioters.

According to Philippe Niemec, many children with immigrant roots do badly at school or lose faith in education because it is failing in its mission "as a privileged place of social integration".

The lead article on a web forum run by Le Monde newspaper suggests that a "Good" leaving certificate from a ghetto school is worth less in the eyes of French society than a "Pass" certificate from a school outside, though students at both sit the same national exams and their papers are marked anonymously.

The fundamental problem, Mr Niemec says, is the difficulty young people from the housing estates face in getting their first job.

When the social elevator gets stuck, it seems, there will be some ready to vandalise it.

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