Tuesday, January 17, 2006

PARIS — French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a citizen volunteer force to fight growing crime and hooliganism spilling from the urban ghettoes of the country.

The “citizens’ reserve” would be unpaid and patrol the “sensitive areas,” he said.

Critics immediately pointed out that such a force would have no legal authority and no weapons to resist aggression in the areas where they might be considered police informers.

The proposal comes a day after Mr. Sarkozy announced a plan to create a railway force of 2,540 police and paramilitary gendarmes that would secure trains across various jurisdictions.

The need for such a force arose after a mob of more than a hundred youths, thought to be North African immigrants, terrorized passengers on atrain running from Nice to Lyon in southern France on New Year’s Day.

On Sunday, a group of young rappers occupied the small Chenay-Gagny railway station, immobilized a Paris-bound train and blocked other lines until they were dispersed by a tear-gas barrage.

French observers think the current effort to stem the tide of crime and violence is underpinned by the political rivalry of two conservative presidential hopefuls: Mr. Sarkozy and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

President Jacques Chirac promised that the fight “against racism and anti-Semitism” would be his task for 2006. Mr. Chirac’s term of office expires next year, and several French newspapers already have published his “political obituary.”

Throughout most of last year, Mr. Sarkozy concentrated on the explosive urban slums — grim areas of drab, high-rise buildings, ruined by neglect and scarred by graffiti and vandalism.

Starting this month, he has been confronted by the phenomenon of a mass attack on trains. On Monday, Mr. Sarkozy attempted to show that such incidents were rare by traveling on the Nice-Lyon train.

Mr. de Villepin, for his part, announced a program Monday aimed at reducing unemployment among the young, with those up to age 26 to be granted two-year “first job” contracts on a trial basis — without further guarantees.

Unemployment and racial discrimination against immigrants from France’s former colonies are listed as the prime source of gangsterism among the young, which in the fall caused three weeks of rioting in and around urban slums, tarnishing France’s image.

According to the latest figures, 23 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed. In some predominantly immigrant areas, youth unemployment is as high as 40 percent.

“It is time to move equality and opportunity from the realm of national myth to reality,” said Minister for Equal Opportunities Azouz Begag, himself a son of North African immigrants.

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