- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, journalist Philippe Grangereau wrote in the French newspaper Liberation that the hurricane “has revealed America’s weaknesses: its racial divisions, the poverty of those left behind by its society, and especially its president’s lack of leadership.” In this snide chiding are insights to the riots that began in a poor suburb outside Paris over a week ago.

The initial violence was sparked Oct. 28, when three boys, hurrying home for dinner after a pick-up soccer match, decided to dodge a routine police checkpoint by hiding in a power substation in Clichy-sous Bois, a town outside Paris. Witnesses claimed the police then pursued the three boys, but officials, corroborated by the third boy, say the boys only thought they were being pursued. Two of the teens were electrocuted at the substation, while the third, who spoke with police, was badly burned.

But one night of unrest subsequently erupted into full-blown terror, with Africans, Muslims and other immigrants shooting at law enforcers, arson attacks on vehicles and government buildings, and rioting in not only Clichy-sous-Bois, but in more than 20 other northeastern Parisian communities.

French officials, including President Jacques Chirac, have tried to intercede and urge peace. Interior Minister Nikolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called off overseas trips to deal with the violence. Mr. Villepin declared, “in our country, law and order will have the last word.” We certainly hope so.

French authorities seemingly mishandled the situation from the outset. In fact, French authorities have mishandled their apparently open-borders immigration situation for decades. Mr. Sarkozy said that “for thirty years the situation has been getting worse in a number of quarters. Thirty years!”

The many towns in suburban Paris that have been hit worst by the riots are marked by high unemployment (more than double the national average), widespread poverty, a younger demographic (roughly half of the population of Clichy-sous-Bois is under the age of 25), unchecked crime, violence and, until recently, minimal police presence. It should not come as a surprise that these towns of second- and third-generation immigrant poor crammed into high-rise public housing and immersed in a sense of political disenfranchisement resemble cinder boxes.

Mr. Sarkozy built a reputation as a hard-nosed crime fighter — he called his Oct. 19 policy to clean up Paris’ desolate and crime-ridden suburbs a “war without mercy.”

After decades of apathetic and neglectful treatment, Mr. Sarkozy, looking to build his political resume before the 2007 election, launched an initiative to crack down on crime. But, as the increasing severity and surprisingly organized nature of the riots demonstrate, people accustomed to being ignored do not take to the establishment of law and order overnight. “I want people to be able to live peacefully,” Mr. Sarkozy said in response to criticisms that his new crime-fighting initiative was too forceful.

For French authorities, the riots are a lamentably violent wake-up call to not only re-establish the rule of law in poverty-stricken areas, but to realize that terror is a threat with many masks.

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