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Deep roots of Paris riots

President Chirac has called for dialogue after a week of clashes.

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The fire engine and police sirens blaring through the darkness Wednesday night, as officers raced to put out yet another fire set by angry youths in this poor Paris suburb, signaled more than an immediate warning of danger.

After a week of nightly disturbances that have left hundreds of cars and buses torched, and several buildings burned down, the horns echoing off the concrete walls of grim housing projects sounded a broader alarm. The spreading violence has lifted the lid on an ugly stew of poverty, discrimination, and desperation amongst immigrant-descended families that most French citizens have long preferred to ignore.

"Frankly I am not surprised by what is happening," says Dounia Bouzar, an expert on French-born Muslims who has worked in the mostly black and North African districts on the outskirts of Paris. "Given the way these kids live, I wonder why it doesn't happen more often."

The outburst of violence, pitting youths throwing stones and Molotov cocktails against riot police, erupted after two teenagers in the nearby suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois - apparently hiding from the police - died by electrocution.

That incident, says social worker Michèle Lereste, "crystallized the hatred" that some of the most disaffected and hopeless young men living in what the government calls "sensitive urban zones" feel toward authority.

In these 751 zones that the government has designated for special programs, unemployment stands at 19.6 percent - double the national average - and at more than 30 percent among 21- to 29- year-olds, according to official figures. Incomes are 75 percent below the average.

Stung by charges that the government has mishandled the wave of unrest in a dozen suburbs, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy have both cancelled planned trips abroad. President Jacques Chirac called Wednesday for "dialogue" to cool tempers.


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