PARIS—With her pink-and-orange hair and pierced lower lip, Manuella Pereira considers herself a rebel standing up for fellow young people across France.
But the diminutive 17-year-old from a well-to-do suburb learned a harsh lesson about solidarity when she went to Paris last week to join a student march on the majestic esplanade of the Invalides military monument.
“A friend of mine got robbed and I got tear-gassed,” said Pereira, a student at Albert Schweitzer High School in Le Raincy. In scenes recorded by television cameras, swarms of hooded, masked youths infiltrated the march Thursday in an upscale tourist district in the heart of Paris, beating and stomping the marchers, stealing their cellphones and money, and torching cars.
As France braces for major nationwide strikes to protest a new labor law today, an embattled government confronts two youth crises that threaten to converge with resounding impact.
One involves the students, mostly middle-class and wealthy activists whose movement has shut down high schools and universities with the kind of rowdy, but essentially nonviolent, protests to which the French are accustomed. Joined by France’s powerful labor unions, the students accuse the government of endangering their future job security with proposed labor reforms.
The second involves another world: the bleak, crime-ridden public housing projects where unemployment among young people can approach 50%. Youths there want a better future too, but they tend to express their discontent with nihilistic outbursts of arson and vandalism.
“The same [troublemakers] as in November are reappearing, but this time in broad daylight,” Deputy Mayor Jean-Christophe Lagarde of Drancy, a town just north of Paris, said in the newspaper Le Parisien.
Describing how youths outside her school had terrorized an elderly woman, smashing the windows of her car, an inexpensive compact called a Twingo, Pereira said indignantly: “That poor lady the other day had no idea what was going on. Go trash a Mercedes if you want, but not a Twingo!”
The mayhem shatters any illusions about unity among France’s young people. In fact, gangs who disrupt marches and attack the protesters often feel contempt for students, whom they see as privileged and weak rich kids, a police intelligence commander said.
There have been a few precedents. Last March, a demonstration by Paris high school students against education reforms degenerated into muggings and robberies that left dozens injured. The aggressors were gangs from outlying areas, and some told journalists and investigators that their goal was to “beat up little white kids,” according to “Slums in Flames,” a recent book by Charles Pelligrini, former chief of an elite detective division of the national police.