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America From Abroad : Worried French Government Feels the Heat From L.A. Riots : Violence in U.S. inspires programs to soothe racial tensions in a country with the Continent's largest minority population.

June 02, 1992|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The Los Angeles riots and aftermath have had a ripple effect even in distant France, inspiring government ministers to create new programs aimed at preventing similar outbreaks of urban violence here. In some cases, such as the decision to assign 4,000 military draftees to blighted urban areas to help with crime prevention and community services, the French programs exceed in scope many of the remedies under discussion in the United States.

Last month, the French Ministry for Urban Affairs unveiled a nine-point plan for soothing tensions and providing community programs in poor--mainly Arab and black African immigrant--suburban communities outside France's major cities.

The program was announced by Urban Affairs Minister Bernard Tapie, a flashy, self-made millionaire who grew up in poverty in the same kind of suburban communities where France faces its biggest problems.

Days later, Tapie, who said he had recruited leading business leaders and financiers to help with the program, was forced to resign after he was charged in French courts with making an illegal profit on a Japanese business deal. But Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy, stressing the urgency of confronting urban problems in the post-Los Angeles climate of social unrest, personally took charge of the Urban Affairs Ministry file and pledged to institute the programs.

Other programs in the urban plan announced by the French government included the creation of a corps of 500 paid "parent school assistants," recruited from the ranks of long-term unemployed to work in problem schools; the creation of night-and-day "citizen centers" in public housing projects to deal with community needs, and the launching of urban renewal construction projects in ten "especially run-down" communities. The government gave no estimate of the cost of the programs. Elsewhere in Europe, discussion of the Los Angeles riots has also been widespread.

In Britain, for example, the specter of Los Angeles has caused officials to examine the potential for a new outbreak of violence in the racially troubled Brixton area of London, where serious race riots erupted in the late 1980s.

A series of violent acts by a gang of young motorcyclists in Coventry, West Midlands, concerned authorities there. The gang members have challenged police and torched several businesses in the public housing projects where unemployment is rampant.

"I don't condone the looting or the violence," local Labor Party leader Bob Ainsworth told reporters in a statement similar to those made by many in Los Angeles, "but what have we done to improve disadvantaged areas? The problems are not going to disappear overnight when 50% of the population is unemployed."

But the post-Los Angeles atmosphere has most affected France, which has the Continent's largest, potentially most volatile, minority population. Public shock over the graphic television images of the Los Angeles rioting created an immediate appeal for government action.

"I think seeing those television pictures of the riots had repercussions on French public opinion," sociologist Gilles Kepel, an expert on Arab immigration at the Paris-based Institut des Sciences Politiques, explained in a telephone interview, "and that had the effect of accelerating the measures taken in recent days."

Newspapers, magazines and television public affairs programs have been preoccupied with the Los Angeles events and the question: "Could the same thing happen here?"

A recent issue of the newspaper Le Monde was typical, prominently featuring four articles dealing with fallout from the Los Angeles riots.

One, contributed by France's only black senior official, state secretary for integration Kofi Yamgnane, discussed "lessons to be learned from these events so we can properly direct our future."

In another, Michel Noir, the young mayor of Lyon, France's second-most-populous city, wrote that the Los Angeles riots demonstrated the need for emergency aid for French cities.

Unlike in the United States, where most of the country's poor are concentrated in the inner cities, France's urban troubles are found in the industrial suburbs that ring Paris, Lyon and Marseilles. Although crime and drug-related problems are nowhere near the scale of those plaguing the United States, France has experienced several outbreaks of rioting and looting in some of the larger public housing communities.

In some cases, the incidents were sparked by episodes of police violence. Last spring in the sprawling, suburban Paris low-income housing project, Mantes-La-Jolie, for example, there were two days of riots after police shot to death a young Arab Muslim, a member of the country's largest minority group. Several businesses were burned; no one was killed.

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