It began with a routine ticket check at a Paris train station. What happened next—rioting, looting, tear gas—showed the anger that erupted into violence in France’s troubled neighborhoods in 2005 still smolders beneath the surface.
The rampage by youths, many apparently of African or North African descent, at a major rail hub Tuesday became an instant campaign issue in the French presidential race. It was a jarring reminder of the social tensions France’s new leader will contend with when he or she takes power in May.
Front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy of the governing right called the violence at the Gare du Nord unacceptable. His main rival, Socialist Segolene Royal, blamed Sarkozy’s camp, saying the right’s policing policies were an utter failure.
Anger erupted after a 32-year-old man without a Metro ticket punched two inspectors during a routine check, police said. The man, an illegal alien from Congo who has challenged France’s efforts to expel him, had been convicted in 2004 for insulting a magistrate, police unions said.
Dozens of youths gathered to defend the man from ticket agents, and the group swelled to 300 people and grew more and more aggressive, police said.
The youths wielded metal bars, smashed windows, looted stores and injured eight train agents and a police officer, police authorities said.
Rail lines connect Gare du Nord to the same troubled suburbs north of Paris that were gripped by rioting in October and November 2005. That violence was born of pent-up anger—especially among youths of Arab and African origin—over years of high unemployment, racial discrimination and economic inequality.
Since then, sporadic incidents have broken out in suburbs that many middle-class French people avoid. The violence at Gare du Nord was unusual because it is in the heart of Paris, the terminal for Eurostar trains linking France to Britain.
Far-right presidential candidate Philippe de Villiers, who wants to stop immigration to France, said the violence shows “there are ethnic gangs installed on our territory and who now feel that even the Gare du Nord is theirs.”
The check “got out of hand and transformed into urban guerrilla warfare, into unacceptable, intolerable violence,” new Interior Minister Francois Baroin told Europe 1 radio. “Nothing can justify what happened.”
Thirteen people were taken into custody, including five minors, police said. They were in custody on suspicion of violence against state agents, vandalism and theft.
The incident gave added urgency to addressing the problems of France’s disenfranchised minority youths—already a central issue of the campaign leading up to the April 22-May 6 two-round presidential vote.
Some of the youths rampaging at Gare du Nord shouted slogans against Sarkozy, who is seen by many youths in poor neighborhoods as the symbol of French police repression. He has alienated many with his tough policing and talk—as minister he once called delinquents “scum.”
Sarkozy said the violence showed that French children need lessons in civic responsibility in school.
“When individuals come to the rescue of someone who is committing fraud, that is particularly unacceptable, and I hope that the justice system will firmly sanction people who behave like that,” he told reporters.
Sarkozy has won praise from some observers for handling the 2005 riots with no major bloodshed. But his leftist opponents say he has exacerbated the suburbs’ problems, and that his government deepened divisions in French society.
“Police are afraid to go in certain neighborhoods, or to carry out certain security checks,” Royal told Canal Plus television. “Sometimes people are afraid simply when they see police.”