- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

PARIS Terror by gangs of youths is spreading through French ghettoes to an extent that firefighters, ambulance crews and even police are reluctant to enter.

"The suburbs are burning," headlined the conservative daily Le Figaro, describing the situation in the suburban slums inhabited mainly by immigrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan former colonies.

Random violence and accompanying insecurity are the leading national concerns, dwarfing unemployment, as this year's presidential election approaches.

So far, neither the left-wing coalition nor the conservative opposition has come up with viable solutions.

According to unofficial estimates, last year some 25,000 cars were burned in French cities, with some officials putting the figure much higher. In the Paris area alone, 110 cars were torched during the year-end festivities.

"People don't report burned cars to the police anymore," said Gerard Aubry, a dentist from Deauville in northern France. "It is a waste of time. The police are powerless."

On Jan. 1, Marie-Noelle Lienemann, the minister in charge of housing, issued a decree forcing buildings with one hundred or more apartments to hire a caretaker. The measure is intended to increase security for an estimated 6 million people living in what the government describes as "areas permanently exposed to crime."

Olivier Loiseleux, who accepted such a job in suburban Maubeuge outside Paris, said he found the apartments "littered with garbage, its cellars crawling with rats. The young in the building treat me as a police informer."

Politicians, sociologists and members of the legal professions are locked in what appears to be a permanent debate about the crime rate, which grew 22 percent during 2001.

"You are talking about burned cars, but I worry more about people," said Georges Fenech, a judge, during a recent televised debate. "Our crime rate is now higher than that in the United States."

Strasbourg, a scenic city on the Rhine on the border with Germany, is now known mainly for the number of cars torched rather than for its historic cathedral and as the seat of the European Parliament.

City officials say that an average of six cars are burned every night for no apparent reason. Police believe the burned cars presumably indicate areas controlled by feuding gangs.

Some 25 percent of what is known as "cites" blocs of relatively recently built low-rent developments are dominated by gangs of youths, defying the authorities and spreading terror.

In Paris, one of the most visited tourist attractions, officials report an increase in thefts and in attacks in the city's Metro system.

There are an estimated 1,000 thefts in the Metro every week, with gangs from Romania and former Yugoslavia specializing in pickpocketing.

Fashionable backpacks that many commuters use instead of attache cases are an especially attractive target.

Seventy plainclothes policemen were recently added to the force patrolling the Metro network.

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