YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

In France, Alienation Is a Two-Way Street

A paramilitary police system in which officers feel like foreigners in the communities they patrol helped set the stage for the riots, critics say.

November 13, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MELUN, France — Capt. Eric Peterle emerged from the fray on a recent night carrying a heavy grate about the size of his head.

An hour earlier, a rioter had torn the grate from the drain of an apartment building and hurled it at the riot squad commander. When Peterle returned to headquarters, the object in his brawny hand became evidence -- of a crime and of the nihilistic fury of France's worst riots in decades.

Peterle's unit first saw action in the epicenter of the unrest, the grim gangways of housing projects in Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris. Later, it redeployed about 30 miles south to this seemingly tranquil, stone-walled town where metropolitan sprawl ends in meadows. In both places, rioters bombarded the unit with rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails -- and even shopping carts and the wreckage of a telephone booth.

"Luckily, the guy who threw this thing missed," said Peterle, a 42-year-old with close-cropped hair and an armor-plated build forged in 17 years of close-quarters combat.

While the anti-riot officers brawled in the glare of flames and cameras, officers of the national police intelligence division led the shadow war.

In a discreet headquarters near Paris last week, rumpled and unshaven officers in jeans, sweaters and scarves worked a legion of informants. There was a barrage of tips and rumors: firebombs stockpiled in a basement, arsonists scheming hit-and-run incursions far from the riot zones, Islamic fundamentalists keeping a mysteriously low profile.

The officers consulted with mayors, businessmen, teachers, imams. Their unique knowledge of the landscape made them the brains of a battle against a guerrilla-style foe in which at least 208 officers have been injured.

In conversations during the last two weeks of violence, a dozen officers from different units, ranks and cities said they were exhausted and dismayed, but not surprised, by the nationwide rampage.

For years, the officers said, the police had warned that France's immigrant-dominated slums were on the verge of exploding, a slow-motion riot about to fast-forward. Culture clashes and economic woes had created a lost generation of mostly Muslim youths seething with hostility toward the state. Wrong-headed ideology had caused governments to pull back from low-income housing projects, or cites, allowing parallel societies ruled by criminal and extremist networks to flourish, officers said.

And several veterans agree with critics who say that France's rigid, paramilitary policing culture aggravated tensions between youths and officers. Even before the riots, an average of 3,500 cars a month were burned nationwide.

"We didn't predict the hour and the day," said a police intelligence chief, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. "But it was all reported: the chasm between youths and society, the power of the criminal economy, the isolation of the projects where it is basically youths versus cops. Because there is nothing. No movie theaters, no restaurants, nothing to do. The only face of the state is the police."

The overall violence has declined markedly from its peak, but it continued this weekend, mainly in provincial regions.

France's police are proud of their restraint and discipline during the onslaught. They have not fired a single shot, even when shot at on half a dozen occasions. There has only been one death, a retiree beaten by a youth, and few serious injuries.

On the other hand, critics say flaws in French policing were among the fuses for the explosion. The French police excel at intelligence, investigations and crowd control, say academic experts and European and U.S. investigators. But in a hierarchical system, intelligence tends to flow up the chain of command, not to other officers in the field. And experts say police here are weaker at basic beat-cop patrolling, an area vital to the dramatic reduction of crime and unrest in U.S. cities in the last decade.

Like those in other European countries, the French system differs greatly from the city police departments of the United States. The police here are a national force led by chiefs in Paris. In the provinces, police forces answer not to mayors but to regional administrators known as prefects.

It's routine for officers, many of whom come from small cities or towns, to start their careers in far-off regions and spend their careers trying to land a post closer to home. In keeping with the military model, Peterle's riot division is housed in bases outside big cities and dispatched all over the country to handle unrest, demonstrations or security for major events.

Los Angeles Times Articles