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French Riots Add to Woes Facing Hollande

Wednesday, 15 Aug 2012 03:42 PM


AMIENS, France — A massive police presence restored calm overnight on Wednesday to the French city of Amiens, where arson and gun attacks on police have added law and order to the deep economic problems confronting President Francois Hollande.

The Socialist leader pledged to do all in his power to stamp out days of disturbances in which 17 police were injured, some by shotgun pellets.

An extra 100 officers were sent to the Fafet district in northern Amiens, bringing to 250 the number of police patrolling there versus the usual 30, officials said.

"The night in the northern district of Amiens was very, very calm. There were incidents in other parts of Amiens and seven cars were burned but this is sadly something that is a regular occurrence in the city," a police spokesman said.

Residents have split over the violence, some blaming heavy-handed policing for rioting in which a brand new gym and a nursery school were torched, and drivers were dragged from their cars before the vehicles were set alight.

Others said jobless delinquents were responsible for the destruction — the Socialists had already designated Fafet as a priority zone for more police due to rising crime.

Their demands for better protection from the authorities echoed criticism from the right that Hollande's ruling Socialists were soft on law and order, something that would only encourage criminality.

"It's a small number of youths who roam around all day in scooters doing nothing, but causing trouble for which the local community pays the price," said Amiens resident Mohamed, 70. "People live in fear," he added.

Although France saw no copycat unrest in its major cities, the Amiens disturbances underscored the challenges facing the left, whose sharp attacks on the domestic security policies of Hollande's conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, helped them win May and June national elections.

Rundown neighborhoods ring many French cities, often populated by poor whites, blacks, and people of North African descent who feel marginalized from mainstream society.

Unemployment in Amiens was 17 percent in 2009, the last year for which official figures are available, 7 points above the national average. The Socialist mayor Gilles Demailly said joblessness in Fafet was as high as 45 percent.

"TREATED LIKE DOGS"

Hollande's initial response to the flare-up was to send his Interior Minister Manuel Valls to the city along with scores of police reinforcements and promise to reverse cuts made during Sarkozy's tenure.

But as he tries to haul down the French budget deficit to meet European Union targets by the end of his five-year term, funding that pledge and pouring limited resources into the country's tough neighborhoods will be an enormous challenge.

The focal point of Amiens' riots was a low-rise council estate which has had money pumped into it in recent years. Trees line the main roads, playgrounds are abundant and the local council has opened a swimming pool, community center. and soccer field.

Among the three buildings gutted in Tuesday's rioting was a gymnasium residents had demanded for 10 years, and a nursery school where toddlers' desks and singed books were still visible among the charred rubble.

The violence appears to have been triggered by a police spot check on Sunday on the sidelines of a memorial for a young local man who died in a road accident and some residents blamed heavy-handed policing for the disturbances.

"I want them to respect us and stop stopping us and treating us like dogs," said Fatima Hadji, the dead man's mother said after meeting Valls.

Around 100 youths booed and jostled Valls as he arrived on Tuesday to meet with local authorities, many complaining he had declined to meet them and discuss their demands for a return to the sort of community policing abandoned during Sarkozy's stints as interior minister and president.

That highlights a deep divide in French society about the way the country should be policed. The debate has intensified in the past decade following rioting in 2005, the worst urban unrest in 40 years, and disturbances in 2007 and 2010.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The problems facing Amiens are mirrored in big centers across France, and Socialist officials were quick to portray the latest flare up as Sarkozy's law and order legacy.

Elisabeth Guigou, a former Socialist justice minister, told RMC radio the riots were the direct result of his policies, which she said had stigmatized communities rather than tackle underlying problems.

Amiens' mayor Demailly said local police had suffered heavy job cuts in the past five years of conservative government, telling BFM-TV: "We have to reverse that trend so the police can do their job properly."

Conservatives have already criticized Hollande's government for planned changes to the criminal justice system, such as removing mandatory minimum sentences.

Jean-Francois Cope, the UMP opposition leader, told RTL radio Hollande was sending mixed messages on law and order despite tough talk on crime from Valls, who is on the rightwing of the Socialist party.

"A number of young delinquents will be rubbing their hands with glee after the messages sent by Mr Hollande and his team over the last 100 days," Cope said.







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