Local youths watch as firemen extinguish burning vehicles in Paris last week.
Mayor Claude Dilain sits on the edge of his chair in his community's wedding banquet hall. His hands are folded on the table in front of him, and his face is a tortured reflection of the doubts and fears inside him.
For the past 10 years, Claude Dilain, 57, has been the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb in northeastern Paris with 28,100 inhabitants, mostly immigrants. Dilain calls it "a powder keg." He slightly resembles the French author Michel Houellebecq, but today he is paler than even the author normally is. The strain of the last few nights is no doubt part of it. But so too is a growing suspicion -- that the modern welfare state may be fully incapable of addressing some of his community's most pressing problems.
Dilain is a socialist and the vice-president of the French Convention of Municipal Authorities. He has been a proactive mayor, setting up free soccer training for local youth, appointing youth leaders as mediators and making sure that the community's waste collection service functions properly. Clichy-sous-Bois is an amalgam of schools, daycare centers, welfare offices, parks and a college that looks like something out of an architecture competition. The community library is currently sponsoring a writing contest themed "I come from afar, I like my country."
By any measure, Claude Dilain has done everything right. But these days he is filled with an ominous sense that doing things right may not be good enough.
What good is education without enough jobs?
Television news programs portray Clichy essentially as a Ramallah-sous-Bois, a place where young people in sneakers and hooded sweatshirts are trying their hand at revolution. They depict riot police armed with rubber bullets and tear gas patrolling streets lined with burning vehicles and garbage cans. A spokesman for the police officers' union is calling for the government to bring in the military. And all this against the backdrop of concrete walls covered in brightly painted murals, the work of local children in a program sponsored by the mayor's office.
Clichy-sous-Bois serves as evidence that the French route of soft integration has failed miserably. Of what use is education when there are no jobs? The hardnosed approach French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has taken has only made matters worse. And when Sarkozy, who has ambitions of becoming France's president, called the youth gangs "scum" and "riffraff" who must be dealt with severely, he was only adding fuel to the fire.
The French capital has an intifada unfolding on its doorstep. For 11 nights running, garbage containers and vehicles have been burning in Departement Seine-Saint-Denis. Night after night, gangs of teenagers storm through their neighborhoods, throwing Molotov cocktails into carpet shops and nursery schools, turning vehicles into bonfires -- 250 in one night, then 315 the next night, and 500 the next.
On October 27, two local teenagers died in circumstances that have yet to be clarified. They had been running from the police, it is said -- although officials have since denied this was the case -- and they ended up in a dead-end alley at the end of which was an electricity substation. The warning sign Mayor Dilain had had affixed to the building's entrance -- featuring comic book characters for the area's youth -- was no deterrent to 15-year-old Banou from Mali and his 17-year-old Tunisian friend, Ziad. They were electrocuted to death. A third boy survived but was seriously injured.
A rumor that the police had driven the two boys to their deaths quickly began to spread. There have been street riots every night since, and the French government is in a state of crisis.
The authorities have had trouble catching these urban guerillas. The number of arrests -- 230 by last Friday, with even fewer convictions -- has been small compared to the scope of the violence and destruction. On Sunday night, though, fully 190 people were taken into custody by French police after they were fired on by demonstrators in Grigny just south of Paris.
A grave danger for the republic
French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin remained silent on the matter for five days, creating the impression that they were passively looking on as the violence threatened to vaporize Sarkozy's political ambitions. But then they recognized that the dramatic events in Clichy-sous-Bois could in fact pose a grave danger for the entire republic.
President Chirac was urged to speak directly to the French public in a televised address, which he finally did on Sunday evening. "Law and order must have the last word," insisted Prime Minister de Villepin. The dynamic Sarkozy eventually came to life and cancelled all foreign trips, as did de Villepin. All three seem to have realized that integration à la française -- which has transformed newcomers into citizens since the French Revolution -- has failed.
The rioters are the children of immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Schools have been on holiday in France, giving these youths even more time on their hands, and it's also the end of the Ramadan fasting period, a time when nerves are already on edge. Their rebellion is directed against anything that even remotely reminds them of state authority, even the mailman. They are beyond reason, and no one, not their parents, not their teachers and least of all the authorities can get through to them.
A French policeman holds a shotgun shell recovered on Sunday night after officers were fired on by rioters.
Between "us" and "them"
The strict separation of church and state, a sacrosanct pillar of French government, has become an illusion. Jihad may not be what's inspiring the rioters, but Islam is undeniably an inseparable component of their self-identity. Islam strengthens their sense of solidarity, gives them the appearance of legitimacy and draws an unmistakable line between them and the others, the "French."
Suddenly "big brothers" -- devout bearded men from the mosques who wear long traditional robes -- are positioning themselves between the authorities and the rioters in Clichy-sous-Bois, calling for order in the name of Allah. As thousands of voices shout "Allahu Akbar" from the windows of high-rise apartment buildings, shivers run down the spines of television viewers in their seemingly safe living rooms.