Mon, Oct 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Feature: French suburbs in `state of conflict'


On a routine call, three unwitting police officers fell into a trap. A car darted out to block their path, and dozens of hooded youths surged out of the darkness to attack them with stones, bats and tear gas before fleeing. One officer was hospitalized, and no arrests were made.

The recent, apparently planned ambush was emblematic of what some officers say has become a near-perpetual and increasingly violent state of conflict between police and gangs in tough, largely immigrant French neighborhoods that were the scene of a three-week paroxysm of rioting almost exactly one year ago.

One small police union claims officers are facing a "permanent intifada." Police injuries have risen in the year since the wave of violence that shook the nation.

More broadly, worsening violence in France testifies to Europe's growing struggle to integrate some of its ethnic minorities. Some mainstream European politicians -- adopting positions previously confined largely to far-right fringes -- are suggesting that ethnic minorities themselves are not doing enough to adapt to European mores and values.

In Britain, former foreign minister Jack Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, this month touched off a wide debate about the rights -- and obligations -- of Muslims by saying that he asks devout Muslim women to remove their veils when visiting his office. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Islam needs to modernize.

In France, a high school teacher received death threats, forcing him into hiding, after he wrote in a newspaper opinion piece last month that Muslim fundamentalists are trying to muzzle Europe's democratic liberties.

Ethnic integration and violence against police are both becoming issues in the election campaign for the French presidency. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading contender on the right, said in a fiery campaign speech this month that those who don't love France don't have to stay, echoing a longtime slogan of the extreme-right National Front: "France, love it or leave it."

When Sarkozy first took over at the interior ministry in 2002, crime was a top public concern. He beefed up policing and figures show that overall, crime has since dropped. But violence against people and police has risen -- opening him up to criticism that his tough-on-crime approach is backfiring, especially in depressed suburbs of Paris where youth gangs appear to be fighting back.

Michel Thooris, head of the small Action Police union, claims that the violence is taking on an Islamic fundamentalist tinge.

"Many youths, many arsonists, many vandals behind the violence do it to cries of `Allah Akbar' [God is Great] when our police cars are stoned," he said in an interview.

Larger, more mainstream police unions sharply disagree that the suburban unrest has any religious basis. However, they do say that some youth gangs no longer seem content to simply throw stones or torch cars and instead appear determined to hurt police officers -- or worse.

"First, it was a rock here or there. Then it was rocks by the dozen. Now, they're leading operations of an almost military sort to trap us," said Loic Lecouplier, a police union official in the Seine Saint-Denis region north of Paris. "These are acts of war."

National police reported 2,458 cases of violence against officers in the first six months of the year, on pace to top the 4,246 cases recorded last year and the 3,842 in 2004. Firefighters and rescue workers have also been targeted -- and some now receive police escorts in such areas.

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