The rioters who have burned out neighborhoods in cities across France for a fortnight are overwhelmingly of North African and Arab ancestry, overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly cut off culturally and economically from the larger French society -- and overwhelmingly Muslimwhisper David R. Sands and Sharon Behn.
But saying they're Muslim is a subject of angry dispute. French officials downplay the religious connections, and some newspapers, particularly in the United States, avoid identifying the rioters as Muslim.While Jacques Chirac points the finger at the rioters' parents, Jean-Marie Le Pen has started to weigh in…
For the moment at least, the frenzy may be subsiding. With curfews in Paris and more than two dozen other cities, and a 12-day state of emergency in effect, French authorities reported yesterday a decline in reports of violence. Car burnings fell by nearly half. But vandals attacked a number of sites, including a large store in the north and a newspaper warehouse near Nice.
…Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin blames the rioting on "structured groups," apparently euphemism for "Muslim," but French officials say they have no evidence that international Muslim radical groups are involved in promoting the violence.
"For the moment, we see no link at all with the networks that we work on," French anti-terrorism judge Jean-Francois Ricard said in Paris. Arrest figures released so far indicate that most of the hoodlums are young and male. About half are younger than 18.
They're technologically savvy. Investigators say the rioters are using the Internet, cell phones and text-messaging to coordinate attacks. Der Spiegel, the German newspaper, quoted one of the text messages from one rioter to another: "We aren't going to let up. The French won't do anything and soon we will be the majority."
Alexis Debat, a former French government counterterrorism analyst, says the ringleaders are "hard-core delinquents" from impoverished Muslim neighborhoods that surround many French cities. They have criminal records that include petty theft, vandalism and drug dealing, but investigators say they see few obvious links to fundamentalist Islamic movements that have declared war on the West.
"This is a problem of poverty and opportunity, not a problem of Islam," he says, noting that there were fewer incidents in neighborhoods where radical Muslim organizations were strongest.
But Mr. Debat says the ringleaders have been joined in the streets by a much larger group of second-generation North African and Arab immigrants who are turning to Islam because they feel alien both in France and their ancestral homes.
"The only possible identification left for many of them is Islam," he said. "They feel betrayed by France, and I don't blame them."
Two weeks of nightly street riots and vandalism have sparked soul-searching in France over the country's vaunted social welfare model and, Mr. Le Pen said, have vindicated his anti-immigrant message.
"The facts support me. The situation is even taking a turn toward perhaps the beginnings of a civil war," Mr. Le Pen said in a statement posted on the Web site of his National Front party.
He told the Associated Press that the party's e-mail system had crashed because so many messages of support had poured in.
He called Mr. Chirac's delayed, low-key response to the riots "pitiable," adding: "Nothing I have seen surprises me. I think that things may even get worse."