At least two buses torched in French suburb on anniversary of riots
Marauding youths torched at least two public buses Friday, as police deployed 4,000 reinforcements across France on the anniversary of two deaths that ignited weeks of riots in the country's most troubled areas.
Paris' transport authority curtailed bus services in the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of the capital, which is home to thousands of immigrants and their French-born children.
France was bracing for a replay of violence in mostly poor suburbs on the one-year anniversary of when two teenagers died in what they thought was a police chase in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois.
One bus was engulfed in flames on Friday in the nearby town of Le Blanc Mesnil, as firefighters deployed to douse the blaze at the foot of a high-rise housing project.
"What happened is four guys attacked Bus 346," said witness Thierry Ange, 19. "They made everyone get off, then they hit a woman and dragged out the bus driver by his tie," then torched the bus with a gasoline bomb in a bottle, he said.
The blackened carcass of another bus that was burned earlier stood across town in Le Blanc Mesnil. The Paris area RATP transport authority said four buses had been burned but firefighters confirmed only two. Two armed men forced passengers off the bus in the earlier attack, police said.
The RATP said it had partially halted bus traffic until early Saturday morning in Seine-Saint-Denis.
The national police said 50 groups of extra officers and riot police - about 4,000 men - were deployed across the country to cope with a possible resurgence of violence. Some 7,000 police are at the ready on an average night in France, officials have said.
Dozens of police officers, wielding riot gear and backed by a helicopter, swept into a housing project in Montfermeil, a neighboring town to Clichy-sous-Bois.
One officer on the scene, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the squads were tracking youths who had thrown stones, broken street lamps and set fire to cars.
The National Police had no immediate comment.
Flaming cars became a symbol of the rioting last year, which jolted France into recognizing a failure to give equal opportunities to many minorities - especially those of Arab and black African origin - and France's 5 million-strong Muslim population.
The outburst of anger at the accidental deaths of the two teenagers - who died electrocuted in a power substation while hiding from police last Oct. 27 - grew into a broader challenge of the French state.
The boys' families and Clichy-sous-Bois Mayor Claude Dilain called for calm Friday.
Several hundred people marched silently Friday through Clichy-sous-Bois, northeast of Paris, in honor of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore. Benna, 17, was buried in his father's native Tunisia. Traore, 15, was of Mauritanian descent.
Adolescent boys in hooded sweat shirts made up a large part of the mixed-race crowd, their heads bent as prayers were read in Arabic and French.
Benna and Traore "became a symbol in the projects," said one of Traore's cousins, named Coulibaly.
"I don't see why the violence should recur. That will not solve the problems," she said.
A memorial to the youths was erected Friday near City Hall, though the site where they died is adorned only with the graffiti and rubble that are the signature of such neighborhoods.
Clichy-sous-Bois has no police station, so officers patrolling here come from outside and have no connection to residents. There is no public transport and few families own cars, leaving most people virtually trapped.
Unemployment among its 28,000 residents is well above the 9 percent national average at 23.5 percent, and goes up to 32 percent for those between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the newspaper La Croix.
The police presence was extremely discreet at Friday's march. But police fanned out elsewhere to brace for possible nighttime violence, with 500 extra riot police assigned to suburban Paris for the anniversary.
Some 100 cars were torched nationwide overnight to Friday, half of them in the Paris region, police officials said. The figure was higher than usual - police say between 30 and 50 cars are normally burned weekly, though some weekends the figure jumps to 100. On the most fiery night of last year's riots, more than 1,400 cars went up in flames.
Attackers forced passengers off four buses before torching them in different Paris suburbs in recent days. In response, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to assign police to protect buses serving some Paris suburbs.
France's trouble integrating minorities and the recent suburban unrest are becoming political priorities in the campaign for next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
Instead of France's vaunted "egalite," or equality, many immigrants and their French-born children suffer police harassment, struggle to find work and live in cinderblock public housing mired in crime and poverty.
The government passed an equal opportunities law this spring and has poured in funds to "sensitive" areas, but disenchantment still reigns.
Many blame Sarkozy, a leading contender on the right, for fueling the riots with his hard-line statements about youths in the projects.