After two nights of gunfire and widespread arson in the northern suburbs of Paris, French police and politicians fear the country is about to plunge into a maelstrom of rioting similar to that of 2005. Sparked by two teenagers' fatal collision with a police car, the violence has injured more than 80 police officers, including one who was hit with pellets from a high-caliber hunting gun, police said.
"A line was crossed last night with the use of a firearm," said Patrice Ribeiro, general secretary of the police union Synergie, which called the violence urban guerrilla warfare. The situation now "is far worse than that of 2005," he told the RTL radio station.
Others said the two days of riots were a symptom of a public policy that emphasizes law and order over community-police relations. There is little mutual trust, critics said, and the least experienced officers are usually sent to the most sensitive neighborhoods.
"The government has done nothing to improve the rapport between the police and young people in these neighborhoods," says Laurent Muccielli, a Paris sociologist specializing in the study of juvenile crime and policing.
"There's no mutual respect and there's no mutual understanding," he adds. "The police are there to arrest delinquents. That's their sole mission."
Two years ago, France witnessed similar scenes of smoke, shattered glass, and youths hurling Molotov cocktails at police in riot gear. Those three weeks of rioting, sparked by the electrocution deaths of two youths who apparently thought they were being chased by police, was the worst urban strife France had seen in decades.
After those riots, there was no shortage of sociological and economic explanations for the eruption of violence in the public housing projects that ring many of France's larger cities.
Lack of strong community-police relations
The projects are known as "cités" in the local vernacular and "sensitive urban zones" in official parlance, and they are generally seen as ghettos of hopelessness. Experts blamed their chronically high unemployment levels, the overcrowded housing conditions, and the failure of the African and Arab immigrants to assimilate into French society.
Little has changed, according to Sébastien Roche, a criminal justice expert.
"The social and economic difficulties of the suburbs remain, and we have no real policy to address the discrimination that suburban youth feel they experience," Mr. Roche said in a radio interview. "And the police don't really have the means to get to know the population they are responsible for. So things spiral out of control."
People living in the suburban housing projects have long complained that the only contact they have with police officers is when a crime occurs.
Young people frequently complain, as they did after the crash last weekend in Villiers-le-Bel, that the police often treat them as criminals, constantly asking them for identification or harassing them off the streets.
Mr. Mucchielli, along with other urban affairs analysts, has long called for France to reinstate beat police in troubled neighborhoods.
"Neighborhood police would know the area, they patrol on foot, they know people by name and they lend a hand in day-to-day problems," he said. "When there's a big problem, the neighborhood police get wind of it quickly and can react."
Needed: seasoned beat officers
The youngest and least experienced police officers are also traditionally assigned to the most difficult neighborhoods. As is the case for French doctors, judges, and teachers, those who score well on a national test get first crack at choosing the city where they will work.
Those who end up in the troubled suburbs, said Mr. Mucchielli, are newly minted officers. "It's their first job, they usually come from other parts of France and they're afraid," he said.
Residents of Villiers-le-Bel told reporters that the violence erupted because many people blamed the police for the crash that killed the two teenagers, aged 15 and 16. The teens' relatives demanded a judicial inquiry into the incident and called for calm. The police said they had opened an internal investigation.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the Interior Minister at the time of the 2005 riots, campaigned on a platform calling for tougher law enforcement. He was widely criticized two years ago for described the youth gangs in the cités as scum who terrorized their law-abiding neighbors.
Since he became president six months ago, Mr. Sarkozy has pushed through a number of criminal justice reforms that impose harsh mandatory sentences for repeat criminals and juvenile offenders.
When the latest riots broke out last weekend, the president was on an official visit to China. His spokesman said he would immediately visit injured police officers and firefighters upon his return to Paris on Wednesday. He also invited the parents of the two boys who were killed in the crash in Villiers-le-Bel to the Elysée presidential palace.