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French Muslims mark day of sadness to honor dead

The anniversary of two youths' deaths finds that little has changed.

October 28, 2006|Alissa J. Rubin and Achrene Sicakyuz | Times Staff Writers

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, FRANCE — One word summed up the mood at the commemoration Friday of the deaths of two French youths whose electrocution set off a series of fiery riots a year ago.

"Triste," said one person after another in French. Sad.

"The atmosphere was sad," said Maamar Hamoude, who works for a local nonprofit organization, as he stood for a few minutes after the ceremony in this rundown suburb to dedicate a memorial. "It was a paying of respects to the young men who died, and in a certain way to all the young people here who have so little," he said.

Teenagers Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, children of immigrants from Africa, were apparently fleeing from the police when they were electrocuted a year ago Friday after they took refuge in an electrical transforming station. Their deaths brought to the surface fury at France's failure to integrate minorities, primarily of African and Middle Eastern origins.

In the weeks of rioting that ensued, thousands of cars were set on fire and some shops looted. However, only one person died and a small number were injured.

Although there are 5 million Muslims in France, the majority from immigrant backgrounds, few have made their way into the country's elite. There are barely a handful of minorities in politics, just one junior minister from a minority background, and token numbers in France's top universities and its police force.

Most live in desolate concrete housing projects or dilapidated homes in suburbs an hour or more by bus or train from the large French cities where most jobs are. Unemployment is well above 20% and in some cases as high as 40%, according to French newspapers.

To prepare for the anniversary, the French Interior Ministry put 4,000 additional police on duty. A day earlier, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy announced that police would also guard bus routes to ensure that drivers and passengers were safe.

Although the emotion often portrayed in the media has been anger, what was on display Friday at the memorial was communal mourning. Many people who came to the two-hour ceremony knew the boys who had died and said that the neighborhoods remained a tinderbox, with an underlying tone of hopelessness. Some of the suburbs' young people seem to believe that only through violence are they heard.

"I think last year's riots have helped us being seen by the rest of France," said Leyla, 18, a young woman who knew one of the boys who died. She did not give her last name.

By early evening Friday there were reports of two buses burned near here; in one case, armed men forced the driver and passengers off before setting it alight, according to witnesses.

"In the last year not a lot has changed," said Fariz, 17, who also did not give his last name. "We don't see much difference. Even if they say funds are being spent, the atmosphere is still tense."

Fariz, like many attending the memorial, wore a long white T-shirt with the names of the two boys who died and the words: "Dead For Nothing." Many refused to talk to reporters, simply shaking their heads.

The event began with a silent march from the border of Clichy-sous-Bois through the housing projects where the boys had lived and into the electrical station where they died and then to the college where the memorial was installed.

The mood was somber, the weather gray and damp. Though most of the marchers appeared young, there were older people as well -- mothers wearing long African robes and elaborate head scarves; matrons in traditional Islamic hijab and ankle-length coats, their hair covered, speaking softly in Arabic; and older men in the skullcaps often worn by practicing Muslims.

Some speakers offered benedictions in French, some in Arabic -- a signal of the divided identity of the community.

Julian, a 17-year-old who has hopes of becoming a film director, said that the government had to do more to improve the projects. "There are lots of promises about urban renovation, and I hope the government will keep its promises," he said. "There are buildings here where the elevators have not worked for years, and our parents pay taxes. The mood is the same as last year."

Clichy-sous-Bois Mayor Claude Dilain agreed. A strong defender of his town, he said that in the eyes of most residents, nothing had changed in the last year.

At the same time, he added: "It would have been impossible to change things in a year.... I can explain to the Clichois that when the minister of Interior promises a local police station, he can't do it in a year. I can explain to the Clichois that when a tram is promised, it can't be done in a day.

"What I can't explain to them is the lack of political affirmation.... We expected the government to assert that it was no longer acceptable that 10% of the French population live in conditions that do not match Republican values," he said.

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