VILLIERS LE BEL, France (Reuters) - Hundreds of French riot police deployed on Wednesday night in the tense Paris suburb where the death of two boys in a motorcycle accident triggered violent clashes this week.
Despite isolated incidents and a few burning cars, the streets and housing estates of Villiers le Bel were generally calm as large formations of police in riot gear stood by and a helicopter with searchlights circled overhead.
Dozens of police officers were injured earlier in the week in clashes with gangs of youths angered by the death of two local boys in a collision with a police car on Sunday.
The incidents reawakened memories of the weeks of rioting that shook France in 2005 and laid bare the tensions in the grim, multi-ethnic housing estates that ring many French cities.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, a law-and-order hardliner as interior minister during the 2005 riots, sought to ease tensions but pledged to punish rioters who used firearms against police.
“Those who take it upon themselves to shoot at police will find themselves in the Assizes Court (which handles serious cases),” he told reporters after visiting one of the officers seriously hurt in the riots.
Just back from a visit to China, he met members of the victims’ families and agreed a formal manslaughter probe by an independent investigating judge would be opened, a key demand of the families.
A public prosecutor has said an initial crash report cleared police of blame in what she said was a road traffic accident in which the two victims were not wearing helmets.
The latest unrest has been nowhere near the scale of the clashes of 2005, when thousands of cars were torched after two teenagers were accidentally electrocuted in a power sub-station after apparently fleeing police.
Although the violence of the past days has been strongly condemned, many residents feel sympathy for the explosion of anger at the death of the two boys, who will be buried in their parents’ homelands — Morocco and Senegal.
“Everybody just wants things to be calm again,” said Papy Lumbu, 32, a resident of Villiers le-Bel.
“These young people are wrong but they’re right too in a way. These two kids were their friends and they’re dead now. I can understand that they’re angry.”
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie visited the area late on Wednesday night. Fire trucks and police cars raced to put out the occasional fire — one on the forecourt of a car showroom — but the atmosphere was quiet, if tense.
Many young people in the “quartiers” — the tough housing estates at the centre of the riots — feel marginalized from the prosperous life of middle class France and are deeply suspicious of the police.
Often the children of black or North African immigrants or working class white parents, many struggle to find work or are condemned to precarious dead-end jobs, often involving a long commute. They say their background puts off potential employers.
The government has pledged to spend 12 billion euros ($17.7 billion) on urban renewal over five years and will launch a plan to boost jobs in the deprived suburbs on January 22.
Additional reporting by Laure Bretton, Gerard Bon and Sophie Louet; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Woodward