AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France (Reuters) - A French plan to outlaw gangs in response to a spate of youth violence has dismayed people in poor suburbs who say it shows the government has no idea what really goes on there and no solution.
Official anti-gang rhetoric has flourished since a raid on a school in the Paris suburb of Gagny on March 10 during which teenagers from a rival school attacked pupils and teachers with metal bars and hammers, injuring 12.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, battling public discontent over the economic crisis and keen to show a tough-on-crime approach that made him popular in the past, rushed to the school and promised a new law making it a crime to belong to a gang.
To many in the suburbs, which are ghettos for ethnic minorities, this had the familiar ring of demonization.
“They’re always portraying us as barbarians,” said Abou, 30, a resident of the “3,000,” a high-rise estate with a fearsome reputation in the suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, north of Paris.
Hot on Sarkozy’s heels, Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said police had identified 220 gangs in France, mostly based in the Paris suburbs, with 2,500 permanent members. Most are involved in trafficking drugs, she said.
Like Sarkozy and Alliot-Marie, French media have been quick to bring up the “gang problem” in their coverage of a series of other incidents involving youths from the tough suburbs.
But residents there warn against confusing organized gangs committing serious crimes with rebellious bands of boys.
“You have big groups of boys who all grow up together on the same estate. The schools are bad, many of the boys drop out. There’s nothing for them to do, no jobs, so they’re bored. They hang out, they get into fights,” said Abou at the 3,000 estate.
Looking around, it is not hard to get the picture.
A long bus ride from Aulnay-sous-Bois’ prim, leafy town center, the 3,000 is a grim expanse of overcrowded concrete tower blocks covered in damp stains, empty streets and shuttered shops.
Abou, who did not wish to give his family name because he has a criminal record, said he used to be involved in turf wars between the 3,000 and a neighboring estate. No one knew how it had started, but youths would fight to defend their “territory.”
The rivalry has faded now after years of mediation efforts, although a new one has flared elsewhere in Aulnay-sous-Bois between two other estates where boys often clash.
While such violence was scary for residents and damaging for the boys, community organizers said it was wrong to refer to “gangs” because it tarred informal groups of disaffected youths with the same brush as organized networks of drug traffickers.
“Just because teenagers go around in big groups doesn’t make them criminals, certainly not all of them,” said Faical Zrari, in charge of a youth leisure center at the 3,000 estate.
Laurent Mucchielli, a senior fellow at the CNRS research center who studies crime and urban violence, said the idea of a new law against gangs was harmful.
“There is already a full arsenal of legal measures that can be used against professional criminal gangs,” he told Reuters.
“Sarkozy’s announcement is just marketing, it’s to say ‘look, I‘m doing something’. It’s dangerous because it tries to make the public believe that you can fix social problems by adding a line to the criminal law books, which is an illusion.”
The 3,000 estate was one of hundreds hit by riots in 2005 over problems that had built up for decades: Poor schools, high drop-out rates, massive unemployment, tense relations between youths and police, racism, isolation from the rest of society.
None of this is new, and successive presidents including Sarkozy have pledged to tackle the root causes.
But funds for school improvements and housing renovations are nowhere near what is needed, and now the economic crisis has pushed the suburbs a long way down the government’s priority list. And the situation is as grim as ever.
A 17-year-old boy from the 3,000 estate, Mamadou Fofana, was stabbed to death in a brawl between two groups of youths this week, prompting more hand-wringing over “the gang problem.”
In fact, no gang was involved. The brawl started when a group of friends from the 3,000 who were on a night out in Paris laughed at a young man who fell off a bicycle. The man and his friends, who were from another tough suburb, took offence.
The two groups fought, knives were drawn, and Fofana was killed trying to stop the violence, authorities said.
Community workers said the tragic incident revealed not a gang problem, but rather a macho attitude among young men from tough neighborhoods that no law would solve.
“They insist on respect, they easily feel slighted. In their minds, it’s about proving you’re a man,” said Zrari.
He said the solutions were better education and job prospects.
“If we want to break this whole cycle, the only way is to broaden these young people’s horizons, not make yet another law to repress them,” he said.
Editing by Sophie Hares