PARIS — A brief video taken 10 minutes after an accident that ignited rioting this week in a poor Paris suburb shows emergency workers trying in vain to save two teens who were on a motorbike that collided with a police car.
The video, shot by an amateur cameraman, also may provide evidence to contradict an initial conclusion by investigators that the police car was further damaged later in the evening by angry residents.
"There was no panic, neither by police or the people from around, everybody was calm," the cameraman, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Nicolas, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "The firemen were very professional, focused on the bodies."
Although the video reportedly is compelling, Nicolas and others who have seen the images said they don't answer the key question of whether this was a road accident or, as some who distrust police insist, a criminal action by officers driving too fast.
The accident occurred about 5 p.m. Sunday in Villiers-le-Bel, north of Paris, and ignited two nights of rioting.
On Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking to police officers, said the violence that followed the accident was not the result of social deprivation in immigrant neighborhoods but rather the work of criminals he labeled a "thugocracy."
"I reject any form of otherworldly naivete that wants to see a victim of society in anyone who breaks the law, a social problem in any riot," he said during the televised speech.
But Sarkozy also tried to show sympathy for the poor. "We're going to make a difference, be more generous toward those who want training or a job and a family and a house."
The collision claimed the lives of two children of African immigrants: Mohsin Sehhouli, 16, and Lakamy Samoura, 15. In the hours after their deaths, dozens of mostly young people from housing projects in the area went on a rampage, setting fire to cars as well as a library, a preschool, a police station and many shops.
They also attacked police officers, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. The rioting picked up again after sundown Monday, but by Tuesday, with 1,000 officers blanketing the area, the violence had subsided.
In his account of Sunday night, Nicolas, the cameraman, said he was at home when he heard the sounds of vehicles smashing. He ran to the scene with his digital camera and started shooting: close-ups of the faces of emergency workers performing CPR on the youths, the faces of people from the neighborhood who had begun to gather, police officers milling about, and all angles of the damaged police car.
Nicolas said he asked the police captain in charge where the officers from the car had gone. The captain "said he didn't know," Nicolas said. "He tried to stop me from making the film but I said, 'You do your job, I'll do mine.' "
Investigators initially relied on the testimony of a firefighter who said the photos published the next day showed a car more damaged than what he had seen Sunday night, according to the newspaper Le Monde, which first revealed the existence of the video. The assumption was people who held the police accountable for the accident lashed out by further damaging the car.
But the video, said Nicolas and others, shows the car in the same condition as those next-day photos, with a smashed windshield, a bumper on the ground and a front broken light.
"If the crowd was supposed to have degraded the car, they had to have done it in the first 10 minutes before Nicolas got there," said Bruno Laforestrie, the manager of local radio station Generation, where Nicolas first showed his video. "But the people you see are calm. When young people are dying before you, really, you are not shouting. You are in shock."
Nicolas on Wednesday turned the video over to Generation, where he and Laforestrie edited it down from about an hour to 5 minutes, 7 seconds. The Times has not yet seen the video, but relied on descriptions by Nicolas, the station manager and media reports.
Laforestrie has given dozens of journalists access to the video. He has asked them, on behalf of Nicolas, to respect the teens' families and not show the scene of their last minutes. Laforestrie also said he gave a copy to a judge whom Sarkozy has asked to investigate the accident.
Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.