AFP – A deprived area of the city of Amiens has been left devastated by rioting that has raised fears of a wave of unrest as the economic outlook for France’s underclass worsens.
Described by the local mayor as the product of mounting social tension in an area where the rule of law has broken down, the Amiens riot cast a shadow over President Francois Hollande’s celebration Tuesday of 100 days since his election victory.
Overnight violence in the historic city left 16 police officers injured, a primary school severely damaged by fire and a sports centre completely destroyed, local officials said.
Clashes involving around 100 local youths and up to 150 police erupted late Monday in the rundown northern quarter of an otherwise prosperous city that is known for its university and 13th-century Gothic cathedral.
Police used tear gas and rubber bullets and deployed a helicopter to quell the unrest after suffering injuries caused by buckshot, fireworks and other projectiles thrown by rioters.
The violence followed lower-scale clashes 24 hours earlier which were triggered by the arrest of a man for dangerous driving.
The arrest was seen as insensitive as it came as many residents of the neighbourhood were attending a wake for a local 20-year-old who had died in a motorbike accident.
Gilles Demailly, the mayor of Amiens, told AFP the violent response to the incident reflected a descent into lawlessness orchestrated by ever younger troublemakers.
“There have been regular incidents here but it has been years since we’ve known a night as violent as this with so much damage done,” the mayor said.
Demailly, a member of Hollande’s Socialist Party, added: “For months I’ve been asking for the means (to alleviate the neighbourhood’s problems) because tension has been mounting here.
“You’ve got gangs of youths playing at being gangsters who have turned the area into a no-go zone. You can no longer order a pizza or get a doctor to come to the house.”
Hollande’s government has identified the northern quarter of Amiens as one of 15 “priority security zones” across the country which will be established from September.
The emphasis will be on tougher policing rather than on schemes to alleviate the impact of record unemployment and falling real incomes for the poorest sections of society.
Figures released Tuesday showed the French economy flat-lining in the second quarter of the year and most economists expect a further deterioration as Hollande’s government cuts spending in most areas in order to reduce its budget deficit in line with eurozone requirements.
Trade unions battling job cuts across French industry have already warned of a “hot autumn” of protest unless the government eases up on the austerity drive.
But Hollande on Tuesday made it clear he regarded the unrest in Amiens as primarily a problem of criminality and promised a tough response.
“The state will mobilise all its means to combat these violent acts,” Hollande said. “Security is not only a priority for us, it is an obligation.”