A few cars were also burnt in the neighborood, but hardly more than usual. It's one of those things that happen and that you don't really worry about if you live there. This week, it goes on TV if you do it, so of course more are tempted to do so (last night saw 1300 cars burn, up from 900 the previous night), including in provincial cities. There is no coordination of anything, it's just mostly copycats by bored kids who are suddenly getting a lot of attention.
The police toughness is just plain posturing by Sarkozy, as the police know very well who does what in the neighborood and didn't and do not intervene. One reason is actually that the local gangs don't attack so much the locals (or the police) as they fight other gangs from nearby cities for sometimes trange turf or other arcane reasons. Also, there isn't that much violence, but isolated incidents and the spectacular, but mostly harmless, car fires. Firemen say explicitly that they let them burn out rather than intervene, as their interventions only excite the gangs more and have little use (unless the fire presents any danger of spreading, which is rarely the case).
Now one thing to note is that these neighboroods are not ghettos. My aunt lived there most of her life, she was a teacher in a nearby pre-school and has a mostly normal middle class life. There are lots of minorities, lots of kids with dysfunctional families, an obvious lack of jobs, and decrepit buildings, but it's not a rundown place, it's not cut off from the rest of the country, and there is a lot of solidarity between the inhabitants.
This is not to deny that the situation is tense, and that the events of recent nights don't signal some real problems in these neighboroods, but it's not like it's war, ot the "end of France" or a crippling crisis for the country.
What it is is a real political crisis for the government, caught between the Le Pen-light shenanigans and provocations of Sarkozy (which are strongly approved and encouraged by a good part of the 'law'n'order' rightwing crowd in the country, but criticised by a majority today, including the moderate right)) and the silence of the rest of the government, led by Villepin, which was hoping that the crisis would burn Sarkozy but did not expect to be caught in the flames as well. The combination of tough, provocative words to start with, an unstable mix of toughness and conciliatory words, and nonstop coverage of burning cars on TV has led to more. Burning cars are nothing new - there was an average of 100 per day in France throughout the year, and it never made the news beyond statistical reports and an quick image once in a while when there was another incident to talk about. But today, it is having a political impact and the political outcry fuels the phenomenon. (The mayor of my aunt's city duly came to visit and be photogrpahed yesterday - sometimes it seems it's the only thing that bring these people around).
What's real is that social budgets for these cités (those that allow the associations to run sport activities, literacy classes and the like) have been cut in the past 3 years, because, as always, this is the easiest thing to do politically.
What is real is that local police forces have been reduced (in Clichy, where it all started, the police has 15 officers vs 35 in the past) and replaced by national police who do not know the neighborood and are pretty aggressive in their behavior - and especially in their overuse of id controls which target only people of color.
What is real is that France made a choice 30 years ago to preserve the jobs of those already integrated, and made it difficult to join that core. Thus unemployment, or unstable employment (temping, short term contracts, internships) touches only those that are not yet in the system - the young and the immigrants, or those that are kicked out - the older and less educated blue collar workers in dying industries. So in neighboroods where you have a lot of young immigrants, the problems are excerbated.
And finally, what is real is that everybody is aware that nothing serious will be done before the 2007 presidential election. With a lame duck, aging, corrupt President fighting it out with his ambitious interior Ministry (Sarkozy), policy is forgotten to spin, politicking and the like and nothing happens - but people are crying for solutions, and not everybody is willing to wait another 18 months for someone to have a clear mandate and do something. The feeling of fin de règne is pervasise and highly corrosive today.
Sarkozy would likely be an improvement over today, in that he would have a clear mandate if elected, and full powers, but he would be likely to run a Bushist policy of tough posturing, tax reform for the rich - and, this is France, getting the TVs not to talk about the banlieues anymore. He is an opportunist and a power hungry reactionary, I don't even see him "liberalising" the economy. But the banlieues do not need more growth, what they need is for the State to come back in full force - bring back the local police presence, give real support to the schools and all the associations that do integration work (it's criminal to cut subsidies to literacy classes, for instance), and actually get things done on improving the housing stock, instead of shuffling money between departments as emergencies arise, and, where necessary, improving transportation links to the big city where the jobs are.
What is not happening is any "intifada"; France is not burning; I still doubt that its integration model is failing ; what is clearly not tolerable anymore is how an underclass (not necessarily only the immigrants, but where they are clearly over represented, and definitely young and undereducated) has been sacrificed and abandoned in the country's (real and mostly successful) efforts to adapt to increasing international competition. They must be brought back into the fold, and toughness is not the way.
[ed] AP story
UPDATE Postscript. Just watched the evening news here. The events of last night, naturally enough, took most of the air time. Chirac spoke, saying that restoring order is the only priority right now. There was a lot of coverage in various places. Most of it showed shocked and uncomprehending populations in these cités, half "white" and half "dark". They showed how the whole cité and the teachers came to clean up the school that was burnt overnight, and which will thus be open again tomorrow. They showed groups of citizens that occupy their local infrastructure (unarmed) simply to create a presence and show that it is valued. They showed some youth saying that they were sick to death of not finding jobs because the don't have the right name, and expressing their anger at Sarkozy's words; there was an interview of inhabitants (again, half white and half brown) of one cité complaining about the racism and provocation of the police.
In 20 minutes, there was not a single mention of religion. Again, these events are not motivated by religion, they are motivated by economics, and by the (correct) feeling of these youth that they are excluded from "normal" society. all they want is a job, a car and decent housing, to live their lifes normally. Now a significant proportion of this underclass is indeed of Arab or African origins, and thus Muslim, but they are all French by nationality.
A final word: I am not trying to downplay the significance of these events, but I do think they need to be put in perspective, and the shrillness of the English language press made me want to give another view. Burning cars are not a good thing, but htey are not the end of the world either, and no sign of any Intifada (or the USA and the UK would be in one as well). The violence unleashed in the past two days will not be tolerated much longer, neither by the inhabitants of the cités nor by the State, and a combination of both actions will prevail.
Now the open question is what the political fallout will be. Will the right use it to push tough law and order policies (to shoot the messenger, effectively), or will France take a hard look at its social model and decide that it is high time to do something for these kids and these cités? On this I must admit that I am not so optimistic.