- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

“Clichy-sur-Jungle” was the title of an article in France’s Liberation newspaper about the hooliganism, then in its second week, in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, one of many troubled blue-collar townships that ring France’s capital.

Clichy-sous-Bois, and other similar towns only a 10-minute drive from Paris, are part of what Parisians call “les banlieux chaudes,” or “the hot suburbs” — a French genteelism for towns facing severe socioeconomic problems.

French officials begin suspecting organized Islamist groups might have a hand in the nightly rioting by Muslim youths in those suburbs, heavily populated by Muslim and North African immigrants or their descendants, who now are French citizens.

By weekend, the violence spread from Paris to Marseille in the south, Rouen in the north and Dijon in the center of the country. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy implied there might be more than is apparent behind this gratuitous violence.

“We were struck to see in departments — notably Seine-Saint-Denis — a large organization” behind the rioting that swept the gritty suburbs around the French capital, Mr. Sarkozy told reporters Friday. “And all of this doesn’t appear to us to be completely spontaneous,” he added.

Mr. Sarkozy’s remarks are similar to those expressed by law enforcement officials who believe criminal gangs and possibly Islamist movements could fuel the nightly clashes between youths and police.

There have been previous eruptions though none as prolonged or widespread. This round began in Clichy-sous-Bois when two Muslim youths were electrocuted after taking refuge in an electrical substation, where police reportedly chased them. The details are unclear. But soon hundreds of other youths took to the streets in protest, smashing storefronts, ransacking schools and setting cars ablaze.

Rioting has since been a occurrence. Thursday night alone, police reported arson attacks on 600 vehicles, with more than 1,200 private cars destroyed since the outbreak began. Antiriot police were called in but retreated under a hail of rocks, Molotov cocktails, and very rare for France — several gunshots.

With his no-nonsense attitude on crime, Mr. Sarkozy, who as interior minister is responsible for enforcing law and order, promised to rid the suburbs of the “rabble” (racaille) accountable for the lawlessness in many “hot suburbs.” Indeed, some of these towns have become so dangerous the police tend to avoid them, leaving them ghetto-like in the grip of terror from gangs of youths.

The minister’s remarks angered the townships’ youths who demand he either apologize or resign. They claim the “ministers’ lack of respect” is to blame for the flare-up. Now if that is not the world upside-down.

Of course French politics come into play, too. Some politicians of Mr. Sarkozy’s own party have joined in criticizing him. In fact, President Jacques Chirac would be pleased to see Mr. Sarkozy, a leading candidate for the 2007 presidential race, crash and burn, leaving the road to the Elysee Palace wide open for his candidate, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

There is, however, far more at stake than the political futures of Messrs. Sarkozy and de Villepin. The very future of France and its democratic institutions are in play. If the problem is not quickly addressed, it will strengthen the extreme right-wing National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who came frightfully close to winning the last presidential election. Mr. Le Pen’s campaign played up the immigration and lack of security factors, promising aggressive action if elected.

France is host to Europe’s largest Muslim community, about 4 to 5 million. The uncertainty about the exact count is partially due to illegal immigration. Tens of thousands of North Africans — mostly from France’s former colonies and domains of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria — enter the country yearly and no one knows exactly how many.

Western European countries began “importing” guest workers to fill jobs Europeans would not consider soon after the end of World War II. France in 1965, welcomed some 800,000 Algerians, 400,000 Moroccans and 200,000 Tunisians. Belgium made deals with the Moroccan government to import entire villages, according to Claude Moniquet of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels firm specializing in counterterrorism.

“They brought tens of thousands of workers and parked them in the most dilapidated, rundown parts of town, without thinking ahead,” said Mr. Moniquet.

The problems arose with the second and third generations. Some began to turn toward Islam, their parents’ religion. “They began to mystify their country of origin,” said Antoine Sfeir, editor in chief of Les Cahiers d’Orient, which covers the Arab world. “They also began to mystify Islam, their parents’ religion, often one of which they knew very little.”

“Then you have to factor in unemployment and life in the ‘ghetto,’ ” says Khadija Mohsen-Finan, an Arab world studies specialist at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) in Paris.

Often faced with discrimination and lack of education, more and more of the young fell into petty crime, pushing drugs, picking pockets, etc., and soon found themselves in prison. Though Muslims are about 10 percent of France’s population, they represent nearly 60 percent of the incarcerated population.

“There, in prison, the imams were waiting for them,” said Mr. Sfeir. More precisely, radical imams began recruiting in French jails. This was repeated across Europe.

Many of these petty criminals turned radical primarily in jail. “Radicalism will be expressed in actions,” warned Mr. Sfeir. “Why do they identify with Islam?” asks Ms. Mohsen-Finan. “Lack of integration,” she replies.

Paradoxically, while Europe has traditionally been in the forefront of the human rights campaign, and pioneered in social programs — it is light years ahead of the United States in terms of social benefits such as Social Security, unemployment benefits and almost-free higher education — it has lagged behind in integrating their immigrant communities. This eruption of violence resulted from years of poor planning by a succession of governments, both left and the right.

“European tolerance to intolerance is coming back to bite them,” commented Zeyno Baran, director of International Security and Energy Program, and a scholar who follows Islamic trends at the Nixon Center in Washington.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International

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