Elaine Ganley, AP, Oct. 25, 2006
Mixing rap music with memories of France’s revolutionary past, youths from poor neighborhoods of largely Muslim and African descent marched through Paris on Wednesday to present a collection of 20,000 complaints to lawmakers.
The march by several hundred people came ahead of Friday’s first anniversary of the riots involving disaffected youths from immigrant Parisian suburbs. Many in France fear new violence, with tensions rising in recent weeks.
The demonstrators held ragged-looking notebooks filled with complaints while crossing southern Paris toward the Assembly, the lower house of parliament, after a stop at the Senate.
The crowd sang “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, and broke into chants of “Vive la France,” proclaiming their allegiance to a country where they often feel unwelcome. Last year’s riots sprang in part from anger over high unemployment and discrimination against immigrants and their French-born children, many of them Muslims from former French colonies in Africa.
Police said the violence, however, was not driven by Islamic groups.
France’s inability to integrate minorities from poor housing projects and recent violence against police are becoming major political issues as the campaign heats up for next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
While politicians on the left have called for more government programs to integrate poor youths since the riots, the leading presidential contender on the right, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has sought to crack down on crime and immigration and echoed slogans of the extreme right.
“The young are starting to wake up. That bothers politicians,” said 26-year old educator Audrey Pronesti, who lives in Epinay-Sur-Seine north of Paris, the site of a recent ambush of police officers by local youths. “This is a movement of young people who respect the law, believe in the law, don’t steal and aren’t violent.”
AC-Le Feu was created shortly after the three weeks of unrest sparked by the deaths on Oct. 27, 2005, of two young boys of African descent who were electrocuted in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, northeast of Paris, while hiding from police.
The group, whose name is a play on words for “enough fire,” crisscrossed France in two painted minibuses in a monthslong tour of 120 suburbs and towns to meet with young and old and document their worries in their “Book of Grievances.”
Hoping to evoke images of the 1789 French Revolution, their plan was to bring the people’s voices to Paris and hand over the notebooks to lawmakers. However, the head of the National Assembly refused to meet with the group.
Mihi and another AC-Le Feu founder, Mohamed Mechmache, work with youths in Clichy-sous-Bois and served as mediators during the riots. However, the fact that new laws, an influx of funds and a glut of promises have had no immediate impact on the problems in immigrant neighborhoods only underscores the precarious nature of the truce.
Azouz Begag, the government minister for equal opportunities, warned against saying nothing has changed since the riots.
“Then the message will be that you can break France,” he told reporters. “If you want fire, there will be fire.”