Riots test new French President Hollande

Riots in the northern city of Amiens have revived concerns about minority grievances and unrest in France.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A local resident walks past a burnt bus stop in the north of Amiens on Wednesday, a day after French riot police clashed with gangs of youths.

After a decade of tensions and rioting in French ghettos under a right-wing government, Socialist François Hollande got a taste of social unrest this week as well.

As has happened many times before, local anger over the French police practice of spot-checking youths' driver’s licenses and other forms of identification helped sparked the rioting. This time, it resulted in two days of car burnings and 17 injured police in the city of Amiens north of Paris.

President Hollande vowed last night to restore order, and there was a relative calm in the neighborhood today, following police reinforcements. But when Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited yesterday and condemned the violence, he was met with a testy standoff, jostling, and booing.

Amiens is Hollande's first urban crisis test. The question here is whether Hollande can – in a time of austerity – aid the ghettos and make progress at reforming the much-hated get-tough police policies of his predecessor.

Amiens is an officially designated “urban sensitive zone” in France. The zones are mostly comprised of minority black and Arab residents facing economic problems. In Amiens, the jobless rate is nearly 45 percent, and according to town officials, two in three young persons are unemployed.

Five years ago, former president Nicolas Sarkozy promised a “Marshall Plan” of relief and aid to them, but under his minister Fadela Amara, the plan never materialized.

Police consider the gang behavior and hostility in the zones bad enough to label many of them, including Amiens, “no go” areas, though the phrase is used loosely.

In riots two days ago, dumpsters and cars were torched, plate glass windows were smashed, and a restaurant was destroyed. Police reported that buckshot was fired, though another report called it machine gun fire. 

The police ID check that sparked the riots took place near the funeral ceremony on Aug. 12 of a young man who died in an unrelated traffic mishap.

Mr. Valls, the interior minister, visited the mother of the deceased yesterday. She complained to him of insensitive and provocative police behavior and said local residents felt they were treated like “animals” by local law enforcement, according to local French newspaper Le Courrier Picard.

It’s a sentiment that is widely felt throughout the area. Zone residents claim they live separate and unequal lives that include frequent ID checks that they say are humiliating and do not take place in Paris or other large cities. 

In a recent Monitor report on the sensitive Paris suburb zone of Clichy-sois-Bois ahead of this year’s French election, nearly every young male interviewed said that they had been stopped and questioned or searched more than once in the previous year.

Clichy was the epicenter of the 2005 riots that started when two youth going home from playing soccer on the eve of Ramadan ran away from a police ID check and were electrocuted when they tried to take refuge in a power station. Within a week, the riots spread across France. 

Ten years ago, France’s police strategy changed from "community" policing to a more confrontational and forceful style. 

In 2005, as interior minister, Sarkozy, vowed to bring a Karcher into the riot zones, referring to the nozzle on water cannons used by French police. This week, Valls, speaking in Amiens, told locals he was not there to bring a Karcher, another potential signal of a policy change to come.

This spring, a grassroots effort in the form of a public lawsuit was filed in French courts for the first time against the practice of police ID checks, financed in part by an NGO supported by the philanthropist George Soros.

Hollande, who just completed his first 100 days in office, was elected largely because of his policies claiming to unify the people. Observers say he’ll likely try to respond to Amiens on that basis, though it’s too early to say exactly what that will look like.

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