Paris Is Burning

The curfew begins each night at 11, but the streets of Colombes are unquiet. Police cars prowl through the sulfurous halos of the street lights and black shadows cast by soulless concrete housing projects. Here and there, the screens of mobile phones flash as hoodlums track the cops, watching where they aren't. "This part of the city has been lost," says Deputy Mayor Olivier Camps-Voqeur, as he wheels his Renault back toward the "safe" part of town and drops a visitor at the commuter train that will take him to Paris, only 10 miles away.

The world of France's banlieues and cites--the grim ghettos on the fringes of the country's major towns--has never been more menacing to the society that for so long has ignored them. Outside Marseilles and Paris, gang wars rage and riot police are drawn into running battles. In Strasbourg, angry youths used to burn one or two cars a week. Now it's several a night. Beleaguered bus drivers are regularly assaulted. In the southeastern town of La Seyne last week, one was hospitalized after a young passenger smashed a bottle of beer over her head. Two weeks ago in the Parisian suburb of Evry, a bus full of Red Cross volunteers returning from a vacation in the Alps was attacked by teenagers wielding knives and metal bars. During the July 14 Bastille Day celebrations, 130 cars were torched in the city of Aulnay. When firefighters arrived on the scene, their truck was rammed by a bulldozer commandeered by a group of thugs, who then destroyed the fire hoses.

Such violent blowouts have spread the sense among many French that youth-related crime is out of control, and a country known for its genteel, civilized culture is falling prey to homegrown Bloods and Crips. Politicians gearing up for presidential elections next year have been quick to seize on the issue, heightening the sense of insecurity. But neither President Jacques Chirac, a conservative Gaullist, nor his main opponent, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has ready solutions.

What's clear from government statistics is that crime has risen by nearly 10 percent across France since January. Fearing a long, troubled summer, more than 20 cities imposed nighttime curfews for their youngest citizens. As 70 million tourists swarm into France for vacation season, visitors are being warned to stay away from "problem areas." Security details have been deployed on the glittering beaches of Cannes and Nice, where incidents of armed robbery have doubled this year.

Desperate not to appear lax, some French authorities, including Chirac, are pushing to adopt a policy of "zero tolerance" toward youthful offenders--as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did in New York. For Europeans used to hearing about mayhem in America, both the crimes and the proposed solution seem like twisted U.S. imports. But some fear these social tremors are a sign of greater eruptions to come, as alienated and disenfranchised young people lash out at French society, at symbols of authority and at each other.

Trapped in monolithic low-rent wastelands, many of these kids are the children of immigrants, never quite welcomed into European society. Others come from old industrial working classes, displaced in the new Europe. A strong sense of social solidarity, the very basic sources of identity and self-worth have often been stripped away by the rapid urbanization and globalization of European society. Such problems are not entirely new, especially in urban slums. But after years of watching society halfheartedly reach out to them, or simply ignore them, many youths have been left with an overwhelming sense of alienation. "Some of these kids are just crazy with rage against French society," says Sophie Body-Gendrot, an expert on urban violence at the Sorbonne. "They've been marginalized to the farthest edge."

This summer's violence reflects that growing sense of abandonment. An economic boom in France over the last three years has led to unprecedented growth and the first real decrease in unemployment in years. But ineffective social policies combined with discrimination meant most disadvantaged youth didn't see the fruits others enjoyed. Unemployment is still double the national average in most urban ghettos. And the turnover rate for teachers in some schools is near 50 percent. The response for many of the country's disenfranchised young has been to take over their neighborhoods, often physically attacking social workers and local authorities. Politicians agree that measures to integrate the kids into society have largely failed. "We are responsible for the hell that these kids are living in," says Colombes official Camps-Voqeur.

And a hell it can be, especially for children. According to a recent report, the number of kids from the ages of 13 to 18 in prison for violent crimes tripled between 1993 and 1998 to 3,800, while the age of those who fall prey to or-ganized gangs continues to drop. There are increasing reports of gang rapes--called tournantes--by bands of adolescent boys, some no older than 14. The victims are often young Muslim girls, doubly victimized by depressed socioeconomic circumstance and the fury of the boys who haunt the abandoned buildings where the rapes take place. The incidence of gang warfare is also on the rise. Last year, 18 full-blown riots erupted between organized gangs and police in suburban Paris.

Most Parisians are comfortably sheltered from the unrest. But last January, shoppers among the high-rise office complexes of La Defense on the western edge of Paris were stopped in their tracks at the sight of more than 300 rampaging kids who had come to settle a turf war. The police, tipped off, were ready and waiting. They discovered bats, an ax, flare guns and meat cleavers. The rumble shook the capital's complacency, reminding Parisians of the world that exists beyond the highway that rings the city. "The reason these kids come into the city is to show themselves," says Body-Gendrot. "It's their way of saying, 'We exist. We're not rats'."

Now politicians are listening--in part because a recent poll showed security to be the No. 1 concern for the French as the country heads into next year's presidential election. "This has to stop," Chirac vowed in a recent TV speech. Despite their frustrations, however, many French are loath to condone measures like the curfew, which smack of political pandering. The violence won't stop unless root causes are addressed. And France isn't even close to doing that.