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Rioting Youths See 'No Future'

Reacting to the first death in France's unrest, they lament joblessness and discrimination.

November 08, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

STAINS, France — Dusk drew the homeboys to their usual hangout spot Monday on Maxim Gorky Boulevard, illuminated by the green neon sign of a telephone shop, the entrance to an African grocery, the lights of an aging apartment building.

It looked as drab as ever, but the youths lounging in hooded sweatshirts and high-tops knew their street had just entered history. Their neighbor, retiree Jean-Jacques le Chenadec, died Monday of injuries he suffered last week in an assault next to the grocery, becoming the first person to die in 12 days of unrest.

The fire, fury and destruction have shaken France's conflict-ridden and uneasily multiethnic society, and the death seemed to push the conflict across yet another ominous line. For the most part, though, the two dozen young men -- ranging from the early teens to the early 30s -- shrugged off the news. In alternating bursts of anger, laughter and solemnity, they tried to explain why France has been plunged into such upheaval.

"I condemn what happened to that gentleman, but I am not surprised by what is happening," said a bull-shouldered 31-year-old of African descent who identified himself as Murphy. He said the woes of men his age drive the nihilistic rage of boys as young as 14 who torch their neighbors' cars, day-care centers, schools and shops.

"They respect us, but they see how bad our situation is," Murphy said, gesturing at his younger friends. "Looking at us, they see they have no future. We went to school, did what we were supposed to do. Now we can't get a job. Because you live in a certain neighborhood, because you have a foreign name. There's a Mercedes factory here that has 100 employees. Not one of them lives in Stains. They hire outsiders."

The death in Stains captured in microcosm the tension and despair of Paris' fading industrial suburbs. In this edgy, crime-ridden town of 32,000, the street names -- Gorky, Stalingrad -- and the Communist-run City Hall recall a long-gone boom in blue-collar jobs that drew waves of North Africans to France four decades ago.

Le Chenadec was part of the aging native French population that lives warily alongside the children and grandchildren of North African, Asian and black immigrants. Told they are French but treated as outsiders, the youths are adrift in joblessness, crime and, more than ever, unfocused rage.

The beefy, white-mustached Le Chenadec, 61, was a retired auto worker and a leader of the residents' council in his building. On Friday, he went outside with a neighbor to check on a fire ignited in garbage cans -- a spark compared with the walls of flame that have swept this depressed region north of Paris.

A man of about 20 approached and exchanged words with the two residents. Then he knocked Le Chenadec to the pavement with a crushing punch. The assailant has not been captured.

"I saw the commotion from my window," said Sarda, a Turkish-born 22-year-old, pointing at one of the faded, six-story buildings lining the boulevard. "First the smoke, then a crowd gathering. And I heard later that someone beat down that old guy. He went outside to put out the fire, and they really gave it to him. And it just keeps going. Every day, more fire."

Asked why the riots have been so fierce, Sarda, who like others refused to give his last name, shrugged. He said too many young men were idle in a country whose 10% unemployment rate triples and quadruples in places such as Stains.

"I don't do anything," Sarda said. "No more school for me. I'd like to find a job in an auto body shop" -- he nodded at the Midas garage a few yards away. "But it's impossible. That's why the kids are angry."

Around him youths cavorted, wheeling around on bikes, nodding to the sounds of iPods and cellphones. They jeered at the politicians, journalists and dozens of residents who held a memorial for the slain man.

No one on the boulevard admitted participating in the riots. Nor did they excuse the death of Le Chenadec. But one muttered that the dead man had a reputation for belligerence and comments with a racist tinge.

"The kind of French guy with a mean dog who was always saying, 'This is my building, back off,' that kind of thing," said a neighbor who asked to remain anonymous.

Minority youths are sick of hearing words that they consider discriminatory. That's why many have declared tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, often referred to as Sarko, their nemesis.

"It's Sarko's fault! Sarko resign! It won't stop until he resigns!" declared Ahmed, 17, lean and resplendent in an off-white athletic suit. He chuckled as a friend mockingly slapped onto his chest one of the white stickers handed out at the memorial event. It read, "Together Against Violence."

Ahmed's tone had the sardonic ring of a slogan. The anti-Sarkozy battle cry recurs in graffiti scrawled on smoking ruins and in "riot blogs" where youths boast of pyromaniac exploits and challenge rival neighborhoods to outdo them.

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