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Paris riots: A youth told us, in the most blunt terms possible, that we weren’t welcome | World News

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There are the three things that have come to illuminate the night sky in Nanterre – blue lights, orange flames and the starburst of fireworks.

For the first couple of nights, it was the fireworks and flames that seemed to dominate here. The police, already wildly unpopular among many in the district, were outnumbered, pelted with rocks and seemingly unable to take control.

That’s why the number of officers being on patrol went through the roof, rising from 9,000 to 40,000 in the space of 24 hours. It was an effort to wrestle back control but, from what we saw, it didn’t work.

You could certainly see a difference. Specialised SWAT teams were brought in along with armoured vehicles. Above Nanterre, a police helicopter looked down, training its searchlight.

But do they really control the streets? It doesn’t really feel like it.

We came to one junction last night and walked no more than a dozen paces down a road before being confronted by a group of young men. One of them, looking down at us from above, threatened us with rocks; another simply told us, in the most blunt terms possible, that we weren’t welcome and should get out straight away.

These are not idle threats. We know of four journalists who were attacked in Nanterre last night, and there may have been more.

Image:
Rioters in Paris following the fatal police shooting of a teenager

Read more: Tear gas and stun grenades won’t stop riots and protests as long as fear persists in Paris

The simple fact is that there is a central area that is effectively guarded by groups of men, with lookouts stationed at each access point. It’s no easy matter to get in and out, unscathed.

The police know that, too. Just a few minutes after we had been threatened, they arrived in numbers – dozens of officers in full riot kit, along with an armoured vehicle and the clatter of the helicopter overhead.

But their role wasn’t so much to arrest as to clear the area – to remove barricades and clear the way for firefighters to put out the blazes.

Read more: Why is there a history of rioting in France’s suburbs?

So, for all the manpower they had, the unit we saw was effectively acting as bodyguards for the firefighters. When the blazes were extinguished, so the firefighters moved on to the next call, and the police went with them.

And what happened next was that the same groups of young men returned to the same corners and took up their positions as lookouts and guards. The wave had passed and they were back in charge.

It is a curious game of cat and mouse, where the cat has all the equipment and power, but the mouse is nimble, remorseless and unafraid.

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March for teenager killed by French police

Across France, what we are seeing is disorder and violence that is rooted in an utter lack of respect, or fear, of the police, or of the normal symbols of authority.

We see snapshots that linger in the mind. A teenager unloading hockey sticks from the back of a car; a fire burning in the middle of a busy road, forcing cars to turn back; a man in a balaclava walking round with a long length of wood in his hand.

Police vans speeding in all directions; the remnants of tear gas canisters that litter streets scorched by fires.

The smell of burning seems to linger over so much of this district at the moment. The fire of anger and discontent that was lit by the killing of 17-year-old Nahel has grown rather than dying away.

Curfews may be the next step, but, in an atmosphere of such disregard for the law, how many will abide by them? More police? A state of emergency? Frankly, nobody knows.

Nanterre has had three nights of violence and conflict, and already this district is scarred. It’s easy to say that the disorder can’t just go on, but so far that’s exactly what has happened.

What France needs is a solution, a balm for the pain. But right now, it doesn’t seem to have one.



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