French Riots Seen to Weaken Gov't, Strengthen Far Right

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Paris ( - Rioting in France appeared to ease Wednesday following the imposition of a state of emergency and curfews, but police still arrested around 330 people and reported confrontations in more than 100 areas.

In 13 days of rioting, protesters have killed a retired man, injured more than 30 police officers, destroyed 6,000 cars and set scores of businesses, schools, official buildings and two churches on fire.

Although the confrontations are mostly restricted to the low-income neighborhoods where the largely Muslim rioters live, and the cars and businesses torched are mostly locally owned, the clashes have shaken France in many ways.

Experts blame the violence on young, poor Muslims, seizing the opportunity to vent anger over racism and discrimination.

The government has been seen to be slow in reacting. President Jacques Chirac did not make a public statement on the clashes until 10 after they erupted, and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin only made concrete proposals, including steps aimed at improving education and employment opportunities, on Monday.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has been the most outspoken member of the government. Answering questions in parliament Wednesday, Sarkozy said he has instructed regional officials to expel from France any foreigners arrested and charged with rioting.

Sarkozy is the head of Chirac's center-right UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party and plans to challenge Chirac or Villepin in 2007 presidential elections.

His political opponents and Chirac loyalists are hoping that an earlier statement by Sarkozy - calling the rioters "scum" and saying neighborhoods needed to be cleaned with a high pressure hose - may be politically damaging to him.

Analysts say both Sarkozy and Chirac have lost political clout because of their inability to deal with the situation with enough force.

In future elections, they say, the far right wing - including presidential candidates like National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen and Movement for France head Philippe de Villiers - stands to gain votes from French citizens wanting a tougher approach.

Le Pen told the BBC Wednesday he was in favor of taking away the French nationality of rioters, whom he said were only "French on paper" because they are the offspring of immigrants.

In recent days, the government has rallied in a bid to present a united front, aware that France and its problems are suddenly the focus of massive international press coverage.

"This has placed a grave crisis of credibility on the president," said Philippe Moreau Defarges, a senior research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations.

"It has tarnished Chirac's image in the measure that he seems not to be controlling the country, and it pinpoints the absence of reforms made by him since he's been president," Moreau Defarges said.

The rioting could lead to a major shift in the long-held French value of integrating newcomers into the French culture.

Islamic groups have largely presented themselves as mediators, saying they understand the language needed to calm down protesters whose main cause, experts here believe, are economic and racial grievances.

But relying on - and being seen to rely on - Muslim organizations does not come easily for the French.

"The republic has always wanted to be a republic of individuals and here we can see that in accepting or giving an important role to Muslim associations, it means that they are recognizing the important role of the ethnic communities, of ethnicity," said Moreau Defarges. "It is contrary to [French] republican ideals."

Moreau Defarges said that while the world watches, the riots have shown that "France is a vulnerable country, with Islamic problems."

The riots are bound to change France's image over the coming years.

"France wants to be monocultural but it will become multicultural," Moreau Defarges said. "It will be forced to make more room for ethnic communities, and this is not in the French tradition."

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