Jenny Booth, Times (London), May 31, 2006
Rioters hurling rocks clashed with police in the suburbs of Paris for a second night, as authorities arrested a youth whose injury — along with the death of two friends — last year sparked a wave of brutal unrest.
Muhittin Altun, who survived being electrocuted in October when he hid from police in an electricity sub-station, was detained late last night in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor neighbourhood northeast of Paris that was the centre of last year’s violence.
Police said the 18-year-old had been throwing stones at a police car. His lawyer denied the charge.
Altun was alleged to have joined in the fresh wave of rioting as it spread from nearby Montfermeil, where gangs attacked a police station, set cars ablaze and rained stones down on public buildings.
Police said that four officers were wounded while protecting the Montfermeil police station from a hail of missiles. Five youths were arrested.
Four other officers, visibly rattled, managed to get out of their car, in front of the Bosquets public housing estate on the border of the two towns, just before the youths set it on fire, AFP witnessed.
A day earlier seven officers were reported injured and three youths arrested.
Following the first outbreak of clashes late on Monday, when Montfermeil’s town hall and mayor’s home were attacked and a gang of 100 masked youths patrolled the suburb, reinforcements of 250 officers were sent to quell the unrest. A helicopter with a spotlight hovered over the neighbourhood all night.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, who is known for his harsh rhetoric on law-and-order, promised to clamp down on any further violence. “I won’t let chaos be stirred up anywhere in France”, he said.
Patrols and police numbers have been increased, in case of a repeat of last year’s rioting that plunged the country into its worst violence in four decades and unleashed a social crisis.
The unrest began after the electrocution on October 27 of Altun and his teenage friends. Bouna Traore, a 15-year-old of Malian background, and Zyed Benna, a 17-year-old of Tunisian origin, both died.
Youths in the suburb, after learning of the deaths, went on a rampage that spread around most of France’s big cities and towns and prompted the government to declare a state of emergency.
The riots snowballed in districts with large immigrant populations, fuelled by anger at racial discrimination, a lack of educational and employment prospects, and police harassment.
In three weeks of unrest more than 10,000 vehicles and 200 public buildings were set on fire, 127 police officers were injured, and 4,500 people arrested. More than £130 million of damage was caused, insurers said.
One of Altun’s lawyers today complained at his arrest and denied police claims that he had participated in the fresh rioting. Altun had been due today to make a visit, alongside investigating magistrates, to the sub-station where he had suffered burns.
“Muhittin Altun is being held on pathetic charges — throwing a rock — which he vehemently denies. We are convinced of his innocence,” Jean-Pierre Mignard told AFP.
“He was arrested in front of his home. We are stupefied that his arrest is taking place a day before a critical judicial proceeding.”
Montfermeil has been a focus of tension since Xavier Lemoine, the mayor, decreed a bylaw last month that banned teenagers from circulating in groups of more than three. A court quashed the bylaw after protests from civil liberties groups.
Montfermeil’s left-wing town council has however blamed the flare-up this week on the “heavy-handed” arrest of a woman from the Bosquets estate, whose son was wanted in connection with the robbery of a bus driver.
Prosecutors confirmed that incidents broke out between youths and police after a woman and her son were arrested on Monday.
Regional authorities of the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture denied that the events were linked to the November riots, describing them as “sporadic incidents which, unfortunately, regularly accompany the work of police officers”.
M. Sarkozy, speaking to a group of policemen, said that the violence in Montfermeil was not a spontaneous occurrence but a well-orchestrated strike.
“More than 100 troublemakers set upon you, masked and carrying weapons,” he said. “It’s impossible to deny the evidence: this was premeditated.”
He also brushed aside criticism of the arrest of the woman and her son, and said it showed only that “by battling delinquency, we have upset some of the delinquents”.
M. Sarkozy is the favourite of the conservative camp for next year’s presidential election.
Following last year’s unrest, the centre-right government promised a string of measures to fight discrimination and improve access to education, jobs and housing for residents of the riot-hit areas.
Despite the government’s action, however, more than four in five French people said in January they feared the riots could flare up again.
“There is a feeling that little has been done to relieve the grievances which underlay last year’s rioting,” said Charles Bremner, Paris correspondent of The Times.
“The unrest in Montfermeil is a symptom of the same problems that caused last year’s unrest — but at the moment there’s no sign that France could explode again like it did last autumn.
“Last night’s riots seem to have been less than the previous night’s, and what’s happening is limited to the areas which have always had the worst trouble. What’s more, they seem to have been specific cases. The mayor of Montfermeil has been rather picking a fight with immigrant kids by imposing drastic laws preventing them from gathering in public places.
“More unrest is always a possibility, but the police are much more visible in the troubled areas than they were at the start last time.”
There was cynicism among French left-wingers that the country’s centre-right government, and its tough-talking interior minister M Sarkozy, were deliberately maintaining the tension by being provocatively tough for their own electoral purposes, added Bremner.
“Sarkozy was out there last night, talking to police and to local people, and actually got shouted down by local kids,” he said.
“It looks a little bit silly when Sarkozy says that the state will have zero tolerance towards misdemeanours, when President Chirac has just pardoned his crony, Guy Drut, one of the French representatives on the IOC, who was convicted on corruption charges of receiving illicit funds from a building firm.”