When police learnt that rival gangs were planning a showdown in Chelles, east of Paris, they prepared for the sort of violence that has become routine in France’s troubled suburbs.
But even the most hardened officers were stunned as they arrived at the scene. The participants in what has become known as the battle of Chelles bus station were all girls aged between 14 and 17.
“They were fighting like the toughest of boys,” a policewoman who saw the confrontation this month said. “They had knives, screwdrivers, sticks and teargas and they were really going for each other. There must have been about 100 of them—some taking part and some there as spectators. It was quite frightening and if we hadn’t intervened quickly, it would have ended in a bloodbath.”
Eight girls were arrested and France was caught in anguished debate over les petites terreurs copying the brutal behaviour of their male counterparts, a concern that has been heightened by a 140 per cent increase in female adolescent violence since 2002.
When The Times met some of the girls last week, they were revealed as ordinary adolescents brought up on multi-ethnic housing estates where violence has become the norm. They dress with style, use make-up, talk in sweet tones—and think that teargas and kitchen knives are appropriate for settling a teenage dispute over boys.
Awa, for instance, is a member of the girl’s gang from Meaux, outside Paris, which confronted rivals from Noisiel, a town 25 miles (40 kilometres) away, at the bus station in Chelles, where they all attend a sixth-form college.
“It all began because one of the Noisiel girls started hanging around the boys in Meaux,” said the 16-year-old, who was wearing a black jacket and pristine white blouse. “We phoned her up and told her to stop. You don’t start going out with our boys if you’re from Noisiel. The girl took the call badly and said she was coming down with some of her friends to do us in. So we had to meet them.”
There was an initial clash by the 613 bus stop in Chelles on a Friday afternoon, with a dozen or so girls from each side kicking and punching each other. When that ended without a clear winner, the adolescents sent text messages to arrange another confrontation for the next Monday. This time they brought knives, other weapons and self-defence sprays containing a form of teargas.
“We quite often have to deal with girls’ violence these days,” said the policewoman. “But it’s usually four of five of them having a punch-up. I’ve never seen a pitched battle between gangs of girls like that before, although I’m not completely surprised because they all seem to want to imitate the boys these days. They swear and spit and are really aggressive.”
With turf wars between male gangs a common feature of the French suburbs, which have become synonymous with high immigration, segregation, riots, crime and drugs, it was only a matter of time before the practice spread to girls, she said.
“It’s all about defending your territory,” said Jenaba, another 16-year-old participant in the battle of Chelles. “We grew up together in Meaux, we have been friends since primary school and we go dancing together. It’s only natural that we should stick together against the Noisiel gang.”
When asked whether there was an ethnic dimension to the fight, she reacted with surprise. “It’s not the blacks against the Arabs or anything like that. We’re all mixed up together. It’s just one estate against another.”
“Some of the girls are incredibly violent these days,” Mohammed, a 16-year-old boy, said. “They’re tougher than us. Just the other day a girl in school chased a boy all the way around the grounds with a knife. He had to climb up a tree to get away from her.”