Riot engulfs troubled French district in north
AMIENS, France — Months of tension between police and young people in a troubled district of northern France exploded Tuesday, with dozens of youths facing off against riot officers in a night of violence. Seventeen officers were injured, a preschool and public gym were torched, and at least three passing drivers in Amiens were dragged from their cars.
The immediate cause of the riots was unclear, but a standoff between police and people attending a memorial for a young man who died in a motorcycle accident may have been one trigger. Officials underlined that police were not involved in that death.
The eruption of violence shows how little relations have changed between police and youths in France's housing projects since nationwide riots in 2005 raged unchecked for nearly a month, leaving entire neighborhoods in flames in the far-flung suburbs.
The sister of the young man who died in the accident said it was impossible for people in her community to even speak with police.
"As soon as they see young people, it's to handcuff them or harass them," said Sabrina Hadji, 22. "The dialogue is completely broken."
Less than two weeks ago, the French government declared Amiens among 15 impoverished zones to receive more money and security, but many people remain frustrated at what they see as official indifference to their situations. Unemployment skews higher in northern France and among the country's youth.
At the height of the confrontation, 150 officers — both local and federal riot police — faced off against young men who fired buckshot and fireworks at them, skirmishing through the neighborhood in the city about 75 miles north of Paris. There were no arrests.
"The confrontations were very, very violent," Amiens Mayor Gilles Dumailly told the French television network BFM. Dumailly said tensions had been building for months between police and the impoverished residents, whom he described as "people who are in some difficulty."
Anger was still running high when Interior Minister Manuel Valls arrived in the neighborhood Tuesday afternoon. A small group of people tried to push through Valls's security detail as he walked through the area, alternately booing him, cursing him, and trying to speak to him.
One shouted, "When are you going to speak to us?" before the minister ducked into a building to meet with the mayor, the head of the local prefecture, and Hadji and her mother.
Valls, who used to represent an impoverished area outside of Paris in Parliament, showed anger himself, expressing disbelief that police officers had been shot at.
"Shooting a police officer? Burning a school? And then questioning these forces? It's intolerable," he said at a news conference. "Nothing excuses shooting at police officers and burning public buildings."
While he took a tough line in saying that order had to be restored, he added that the residents of the neighborhood are the primary victims and said his door would always be open to them.
Relations between police and youth in housing projects have been troubled for years, perhaps decades.
Alain Bauer, a professor of criminology, said circumstances had only worsened since 2005. He said it was hard to predict what would happen after the Amiens violence, which he described as "a culmination of bitterness and tension."
"These are small events that stand apart unless they take on greater importance," he said. "It will take an in-depth reaction [from the government], responding to both criminal and social problems."