Riots ebb as citizens take stand
In one Paris suburb, neighbors guard schools and patrol streets to take back the night.
GRIGNY, FRANCE — Standing in the midnight chill outside the cultural center he's guarding, its windows boarded against rioters, Patrice Carteron chuckles.
"Nobody is going to bother me," says the European heavyweight champion in Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing. "If they come here, that's the end of the riot. No need for the police."
Mr. Carteron's attitude toward the gangs of youths who have been setting fire to cars and buildings in this poor suburb 15 miles south of Paris is understandable.
But Michele Lemaire, a middle-aged white woman, isn't afraid either. She's spending the night - along with a dozen companions - guarding a nearby primary school that was torched two nights earlier.
Carteron and Ms. Lemaire are two links in a growing civic chain forged in the last few days by city hall, the local mosque, and neighborhood associations, which has reclaimed Grigny's streets from rioters, and restored calm. This heavily immigrant town is typical of many of the suburbs that have been torn by violence for the past 12nights. Residents of the high rise blocks come from 72 different nations, with more than a quarter of them under age 20; unemployment in some projects reaches 40 percent among young people and half the population is Muslim, according to local residents.
With few other communities able to replicate Grigny's abatement of violence, the French government declared a state of emergency from midnight Tuesday, allowing local government officials to impose curfews and giving the police permission to search homes without a warrant if they suspect weapons are present.
Grigny's community leaders don't intend to do the police's job for them; In a green-carpeted mosque tucked among serried ranks of 13-story public housing projects, Abdel Hak Eddouka made that clear earlier Monday evening.
"We are not there to replace the police, or to stop things beyond our control," said Mr. Eddouka, a local Muslim leader, who stepped up before the faithful just after evening prayers and asked for volunteers to stay on the streets that night.
"But we can tell people to think about what they are doing," added the soft- spoken Eddouka, a bookseller who works as a prison chaplain in his spare time.
"The cars they are burning could be our cars, and the schools they are burning are where our children learn to read and write."
Those were the kinds of arguments that Nourredine, a young mosque-goer of North African descent who did not want to give his last name, says he used on Sunday night when he came across a neighbor, face hidden by his sweatshirt hood, carrying a plastic jerrycan of gasoline.
"I was with a couple of other guys taking a turn around the neighborhood to see what was going on and he ran right into us," Nourredine recalls, adjusting the black and white checkered kaffiyeh he is wearing over a woolen cap.
"I recognized him, and I told him that what he was doing was not very smart, that it's pointless to burn schools. I didn't preach a sermon but we persuaded him. He poured the gas away."
As Nourredine recounts the incident, standing under the orange glare of streetlamps, three vanloads of riot police in full protective gear drive slowly by.
Out of one window pokes the stubby twin-barreled snout of a "FlashBall" gun, used to fire large rubber projectiles.
"Let's hope that when the kids see that they don't blow up," Nourredine says, shaking his head. "They see that gun pointing out of the window and they don't understand," he adds. "It could be the start of a riot."
The police have reason to be nervous, he acknowledges. Two of the 9,000 officers deployed nationwide were badly wounded by shotgun fire in Grigny on Sunday night.
But the town's streets were calm on Monday night, when only four police were reported injured in France, compared to Sunday's tally of 36. Likewise, reported the Associated Press, the number of cars burned dropped from 1,408 to 1,173.
"What we are doing is effective," says Pierre Rogow, an organizer of after-school activities. "We are saving buildings."
On Sunday night, youths had broken windows and hurled Molotov cocktails into two schools, the town swimming pool, and a youth club, says Mr. Rogow. "But people were inside, guarding them, so they put the fires out before they did any damage."
Monday marked the second night that local residents had guarded municipal buildings. "My neighbor asked me to volunteer and I'm not working tomorrow so I am happy to help" says Veronique Demolineux, an unemployed woman from the Caribbean who was spending the night at the school.
Almost everybody you meet in Grigny says they're fed up with the violence. Even a group of young men of African origin agreed that while "it's OK to go after the cops because they are abusive, ... we are against burning cars," as one of them put it to Eddouka during a discussion on the street Monday night.
The same small crowd of youths was less conciliatory when the town's communist mayor walked by on his way home from a town meeting to organize the defense of city property. Their discussion quickly degenerated into a noisy exchange of mutual recriminations.
"I'm not their dad," said Mayor Claude Vasquez after the run-in, when asked if he thought the youths paid him any attention.
"I'd rather they got involved in politics. I'm fighting Sarkozy's policies," he added, referring to hard-line Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. "But they should fight by other means than vandalism."
The outbreak of violence has been an especially hard blow for the network of community leaders who say they have worked hard in recent years to keep Grigny calm and to improve the quality of life here.
Residents have founded over 100 sports clubs, social groups, cultural organizations and the like, which community activists say helped reduce the level of trouble in the town.
"If these events had not unfortunately broken out 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, you would find Grigny one of the quietest of the suburbs," says Abdoulaye Juye, a retired woodworker who moved to France from Senegal 31 years ago, referring to the deaths of two teens hiding from police in an electrical substation that sparked the current wave of violence.
"We parents had opened a dialogue with everyone, with the government authorities, with the police, with the young people and for a year it has been calm here," Mr. Juye explains. "Then overnight this national event fell on our heads.
"We were winning the battle," he adds. "And it's not lost yet."