Wednesday, November 9, 2005

ESSONNE, France — Government-ordered curfews imposed on France’s troubled suburbs might have eased the storm of rioting that blazed through the country for 13 consecutive nights, but police who regularly patrol the country’s troubled suburbs said the cause of the violence is far from extinguished.

“Yes, the framework of the curfew law is broad enough to allow us to maybe stamp out the rioting,” said Jean-Christophe Carme, head of the Action Police trade union. “But enforcing measures that simply involve increased security does not solve the problem. The rioters were controlled by criminal gangs operating out of ghettos. And these ghettos remain no-go zones that have completely seceded from the republic.”

Mr. Carme and his colleague Michel Thooris spoke to The Washington Times while patrolling the troubled region of Essonne, about 15 miles south of Paris. Stopping in front of a sprawling cluster of housing projects known as Les Tarterets, Mr. Thooris said it was one of the many ghettos that even police do not dare to enter.

“This is one of the most dangerous and violent housing projects in France,” he said. “It’s also a cradle of radical Islam, controlled by professional criminals involved in drug and weapons trafficking and who have links to al Qaeda. We cannot even stop here for long because they are always surveying the area for police, and if they see us, there will be serious trouble.”

As Mr. Thooris spoke, a car drove by slowly — twice. Mr. Thooris didn’t hang around to find out why.

Constant references to the Muslim origins of some rioters have brought out suspicions that Islamic radicals had a hand in organizing the rampage, which has left one man dead, dozens injured and hundreds of vehicles and public buildings destroyed.

Muslim leaders, though, refute any link between the rioting and religion. Earlier this week, the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF) issued a religious edict, or fatwa, condemning the disorder and destruction and forbidding “any Muslim seeking divine grace and satisfaction to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone’s life.”

The group also has sent out people at night to try to restore calm.

“These events have nothing to do with Islam. It is a purely social and political problem,” said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the UOIF, one of France’s largest Islamic groups, which also has links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the international Islamist movement. “In fact, all these events are being exaggerated, exploited by people who are hostile to Muslims and Islam and who want to give us a bad image.”

Christophe Bertossi, an Islam and immigration specialist at the French Institute of International Relations, also rejects any connection between Islam and the unrest.

“The youngsters who were involved in the riots do not even practice Islam. They don’t read the Koran, they don’t go to mosques,” he said. “They identify with the Muslim community simply because they feel excluded from any other one.”

Government officials have stopped short of attributing any of the unrest to Islamic elements. But Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested that Islamic radicals could profit from the power vacuum created by the riots.

Both Mr. Carme and Mr. Thooris, however, are convinced there is a link. They said that some of the affected areas are controlled by Islamists and that the level of coordination involved suggests organization and power that only the radicals have.

Minutes after arriving in Essonne last night, the two men were alerted to a fire that had been set off in a trash bin in the basement of housing project. Firefighters were in place when police arrived.

“This is a classic ploy that’s been happening all week,” Mr. Carme said as he arrived on the scene while scanning the building’s rooftops for falling objects. “They set a fire, which brings in the firemen, and later, the police who always come as reinforcement. And when everyone is in place, they begin attacking, either shooting from the balconies and throwing rocks or other objects from the roof.”

Not wanting to provoke the building’s residents, Mr. Carme decided to leave the premises. On turning the corner, however, as feared, his car was pelted with rocks, hurled by a mob of youths on the street, apparently waiting for just such an opportunity.

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