Cover Story

Suburban warriors

Sleepless nights, rowdy classrooms, and unquenched young anger turn France on its head and give a foothold to Muslim radicals

Issue: "Riots in France," Nov. 19, 2005

Teachers in Le Bourget say they don't sleep at night because of the burning cars, but they show up for work the next day, anyway. Schools in this and other Paris suburbs affected by weeks of youth violence have not closed. Still, threats seep into not only a teacher's dreams but also her classroom. One day last week Rebekah Spraitzar, a visiting American teacher at Collège Didier Daurat, a junior-high school here, had one student in jail and one just out. Another marauding pupil, age 13, told her: "We are just having fun."

No one else is laughing. The violence that began Oct. 27 in Clichy-sous-Bois, when two teenagers hiding from police accidentally electrocuted themselves, by Nov. 9 had spread to all 15 of France's largest cities.

The youths also targeted bystanders, killing one 61-year-old man who tried to stop an arson attack and dousing another-a woman in her 50s and on crutches-with a flammable liquid and setting her on fire as she tried to get off a bus in the suburb of Sevran. She was rescued by the driver and hospitalized with severe burns.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

As young immigrant toughs with good aim but no future set fire to thousands of cars each night, torched buildings, and lobbed bottles, rocks, and gunfire at police, copycat rioting spread to Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Spain.

In Le Bourget, an apartment community northeast of Paris where Charles Lindbergh landed after his famous solo transatlantic flight, rioting youths burned three factory warehouses and torched hundreds of vehicles. They also successfully closed a commuter train line linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport. The train authority ran a scaled-back schedule through violence-riddled suburbs starting Nov. 4 after youths targeted two trains with what appeared to be Molotov cocktails. Ms. Spraitzar, who lives inside Paris and uses the train for the daily commute to Le Bourget, said hundreds had to jam aboard the sporadic trains. "It was chaotic," she said, "but did not feel unsafe-until I read the news."

Commuters and others are meeting the unrest with a mix of shock and "c'est la vie." Life in much of downtown Paris is perfectly normal, say residents, until a fireball erupts around a corner. Most people feel safe during the day, said Ms. Spraitzar, but nights are full of anxiety.

Having observed the coordinated terror attacks in London last July, the French are wary of similar attacks on their own soil. In the quest to thwart deadly conspiracies by bearded Muslim men, however, few experts anticipated escalating violence at the hands of mostly Muslim immigrants too young to grow facial hair.

Bat Ye'or, author of Eurabia and a critic of Western complacency toward advancing Islamic states, said she is surprised by the breadth and severity of the violence (see interview below). Such unrest "is not conceivable" in a Muslim country, she pointed out, faulting "the lethargy and incapacity" of parents and local residents for continuing riots. "However, it is the state of total unpreparedness to deal rapidly with an intifada that is worrying," she said.

Not until nightly riots peaked Nov. 6-with more than 1,400 cars torched, 400 youths arrested, and more than 30 police injured in gunfights-did President Jacques Chirac admit that he faced a Muslim intifada, or uprising. He declared a national emergency Nov. 7 and imposed a 12-day curfew.

"The peak is now behind us," said Gerard Gaudron, mayor of Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the worst-hit towns. He told French radio that parents appear determined to keep teenagers home to prevent further unrest. "People have had enough. People are afraid. It's time for this to stop."

At Ms. Spraitzar's school no one was surprised that the violence began and no one believes it is really over. Seine-Saint-Denis is one of the country's smallest départements, or local government regions, but, at 2 million, one of its most crowded. A class taught by Ms. Spraitzar is typical: Nearly half its students are from the Maghreb states of north Africa, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia; one-fourth are traditional French; a tenth, she said, are Serbs and Croats from Eastern Europe; and the rest are black Africans. "It's easy to tell by their names who is not from France," she said. Most know more about Ramadan, she noted, than the roots of French civilization.

At parent-teacher conferences last month she realized most parents are first-generation immigrants who speak little French. Many have jobs but overall their lot is defined by poverty. Unlike the United States but like most metropolitan areas in Europe, French cities build low-income, high-density housing in the suburbs. "These people are completely isolated," said Ms. Spraitzar. "The parents may be working, but the children will say they don't feel Algerian and they don't feel French." One student recently asked her, "Do Americans hate Arabs, too?" Many of her students are tough, said Ms. Spraitzar, "but I think some of them are scared and feel isolated from a future in France."


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Life with Lyme

    For long-term Lyme patients, treatment is a matter of…


    Job-seeker friendly

    Southern California churches reach the unemployed through job fairs