STRASBOURG, France — Ask people who live in the dilapidated housing project called the Polygon who the biggest troublemakers are, and they'll tell you, "Mehdi and his friends."
Last autumn, the teens on the cusp of manhood allegedly took a 14-year-old girl down to the basement of one of the apartment buildings, put a knife to her throat and spent the afternoon gang-raping her. More recently, they smashed the windows and lights in a high-rise on the Rue de Sarlat because a tenant had shouted at them, residents say.
This New Year's Eve, the restless youths allegedly tore the wiring out of a white Opel Corsa and tried to torch the car.
"They don't have proof we did anything--so, tough for the cops," is the world-wise observation from Mehdi, a bull-necked 17-year-old who has been raised by his French mother since his Algerian-born father was shot to death in a bar brawl a decade ago. "There is nothing to do around here, so we do this kind of stuff."
How to deal with Mehdi and other problem children in France's poorer districts, many of whom are the offspring of immigrants from northern and sub-Saharan Africa, has blown up into a major national issue. It is second only to the country's high rate of joblessness, an abiding economic and social scourge that many blame for the mushrooming juvenile delinquency.
Just as thousands of jobless adults have staged sit-ins in government offices recently, youths in many depressed French neighborhoods--often the children of the unemployed--have gone on rampages of vandalism or clashed with police.
"We're sitting on a powder keg," warns Sen. Hubert Haenel, a right-wing lawmaker from Alsace, the region of eastern France with Strasbourg as its administrative capital. "There is a revolt by the young people of the suburbs [often areas of poverty] and another, completely justified, by the jobless. And then there is a revolt by people like you and me who aren't going to accept anymore the fact that others are smashing everything."
Some observers take the outbreak of violence as another sign that a new underclass is forming in the bleak projects on the outskirts of Paris, Lyons and other cities: the "youth from the suburbs."
"They know that all their life, that's what they will be," says journalist and writer Francois Miclo. "That even when they are grandfathers, they'll still be 'youth from the suburbs.' That their children and their grandchildren will never be anything else but 'youth from the suburbs.' "
If so, it will mark a major failure for France's society and political system. Since the 1980s, official doctrine and legislation alike have held that immigrants and their children, as long as they consider themselves part of the national community and obey its laws, are as French as people named Martin and Dupont. But the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity have been sorely tested by economic hard times and feelings of racism.
A minority of youths in the projects are involved in violent crime, vandalism and drug dealing, experts say. But alarmed voices on the far right have direly spoken of an "intifada of the suburbs"--equating districts like the Polygon with the restive Arab territories under Israeli occupation. Such widespread feelings of insecurity are one reason for the political success of Jean-Marie Le Pen of the populist and xenophobic National Front, which hopes to cash in on voter frustrations in regional elections next month.
Juvenile Crime Has Increased Alarmingly
Although France has nothing near the levels of gun crime in U.S. cities, recent statistics from the Interior Ministry showed that the number of minors implicated in criminal offenses has increased alarmingly, by 81.5% over the past decade. Young people now account for 17.8% of crimes in France, including 40% of burglaries and 18.4% of rapes.
That's almost identical to levels in the U.S., where 19% of arrests in 1996 involved minors, according to the FBI. But if the percentage of young criminals in the United States has been dropping recently, in France it is on the rise: In the first three months of 1997, juvenile crime rose 12% compared with the same period the previous year.
In a poll last month, 82% of the respondents said they believe that urban violence in France has reached alarming, record levels. Two-thirds endorsed massive police redeployments to the cities.
In recent weeks, 21 cars have been torched in the rundown industrial city of Saint-Etienne, home to a monotonous, 900-foot-long slab of public housing known as the Great Wall of China.
In Clermont-Ferrand, also in the south-central part of the country, bus drivers went on strike after one of their female colleagues was attacked by young people.
In Dammarie-les-Lys southwest of Paris, about 100 young people battled police after officers shot and killed 16-year-old Abdelkadher Bouziane as he allegedly tried to elude a police roadblock.