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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006, 13:19 GMT
Anger remains in French suburbs
By Paul Henley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Three months on from the riots which tore through the heart of France, Paul Henley hears worrying evidence that anger and resentment remain in the suburbs.

Firefighters extinguish a fire in a burning car in Gentilly, south of Paris in November
October's violence spread quickly through the suburbs of Paris
The task of meeting and interviewing young people from the Paris suburbs who had been involved in the infamous riots had struck me as a difficult one.

I had imagined several days of hanging around grim housing estates trying to work my way into the confidence of defensive, jaded and probably monosyllabic youths.

What actually happened proves the importance in this business of not making assumptions.

I contacted a youth worker, Mohamed Mizane, who is based in the housing projects of Montreuil, which saw some of the worst violence.

He said he would speak to an 18-year-old Algerian he knew who had a conviction, and a jail sentence, behind him for kicking a police motorbike during the unrest last October.

He added that he "might bring along one or two of his mates", if he was willing to talk.

Disenchanted voices

Mohamed picked me up on a Tuesday night from the metro station and we drove to a run-down-looking youth centre in the middle of one of the estates.

French youths by a car in the suburbs
Feelings of frustration are evident on the suburban estates
A small crowd of teenagers - all of them from north and west African families - filed in, shook my hand and said they would like to talk about the riots.

I began by apologising for my rather dodgy French, saying I hoped they would understand me nonetheless.

The response was like that of a class of polite English public school boys: "Bah, non... not at all, your French is much better than our English," and so on.

"The riots were just a way of getting ourselves heard," said one 19-year-old, "even if it wasn't the best way.

"We burned cars, litter bins and all that stuff... and suddenly the politicians and everybody else took notice of us."

"This is a difficult place to live," said a black youth who insisted on taking my microphone and holding it end-down against his mouth, like a rapper.

"When you watch your brothers - five or six of them - trying to get a job and getting nowhere, you wonder what the point is.

"Everyone's on the dole here, and nobody sees any way of getting out."

'Not civilised'

The boy with the conviction for his part in the riots, who seemed particularly eloquent in his analysis of events, talked about "provocation" by French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy refuses to disown his now famous comments
On a visit to one of the estates shortly before the riots began, the minister famously referred to the criminal youth of the area as "racaille", a word no-one expected to hear from a politician and which translates variously as "rabble", "yobs" or "scum".

"The words chosen by Sarkozy," he said, "show he's the one who's not civilised," he said.

"To me, it shows he's got no respect for us whatsoever. He's the second most important politician in the country, and when he chooses to use words that are, frankly, so cowardly and so out of control, it's serious. And there were consequences."

Another of the group spelled out his frustration: "Young kids like us, we're never going to get to the top, are we?

"No-one's ever going to give us any responsibility, even if they keep telling us we live in a free country where there's no discrimination, where there's liberty and equality, the reality is very different."

He added a grim warning to the politicians who claim they will transform the suburbs and the opportunities for people who live there: the same violence could happen all over again, and worse.

"If things do not change," he said, "there will be a revolt. That much is clear."

Police relations

The riots in Paris' "banlieues" last Autumn resulted in one death. Property - notably local people's cars, shops and businesses - was the main casualty.

Mimoun Belmir, an ex-policeman who now works in the youth centre
I heard my colleagues talking about the north African community - they stigmatised them
Mimoun Belmir

But if there were human targets, they were the police officers.

Resentment against the police, as representatives of the French state, still runs high.

Mimoun Belmir, an ex-policeman who now works in the youth centre, claimed his experience offered an insight into the approach of some of his former colleagues.

"The national police force is an institution, a republican institution," he said.

"When I joined, I had a sense of vocation and passion. But the problem is, it's an environment that's racist. That's what made me leave.

"On several occasions, I heard my colleagues talking about the north African community - they stigmatised them - said they were all thieves, good-for-nothing... no-brains.

"My boss - he's been in the Algerian war - he couldn't stand north Africans. I think he had a sort of allergy against them... His boss was the same.

"I'm talking about some police. I can't put them all in the same boat. We must not generalise. But what they teach police officers during their training and what happens in practice is totally different."

If his allegations and those of the teenagers he works with are true, then the process of healing the scars of the Paris riots still has a long way to go.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents returned on Thursday, 2 February, 2006 at 1102 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 6 February, 2006, at 2030 GMT.

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