French police on high alert after riots in Amiens

Police in Amiens
Image caption Amiens is set to become one of 15 so-called 'priority security zones'

Police throughout France have been placed on high alert after riots in Amiens earlier this week left 16 officers injured. The trouble has come at a difficult time for the country's new President, Francois Hollande, and the city is not alone in its problems.

The old port of Marseille is bustling at this time of year. It is the Mediterranean route into France, a haven for traders, a gateway for smugglers.

It reflects, in the visiting yachts that currently hug the harbour, the wealth and privilege to which many in Marseille might aspire.

High above the towering cranes of the old waterfront is the contrasting image of poverty and despair.

The limestone hills are crammed with faceless, deprived housing projects in which the drug gangs are in murderous control.

This has been a particularly brutal summer with 17 drug related deaths this year - already surpassing the figure for 2011.

We were warned about filming in these suburbs, the taxis refuse to go there, even the police are wary. There is a new threat. The smuggling from the Balkans has put powerful military style weapons in the hands of teenagers.

"They use them as if it's a video game," said Jean Marie Allemand, head of the city's police union. "Some of the gunmen are as young as 13, they spray bullets in all directions, they are afraid of nothing."

In another suburb this week, far to the north in the city of Amiens there was a riot. In fact the local mayor compared it to "urban guerrilla warfare".

Sixteen policemen were injured, some of them hit with live rounds. A nursery school and a local gym were gutted by fire and motorists ambushed, their vehicles set alight.

Marseille and Amiens - two cities at opposite ends of the country with much the same problem. The poor relationship between police and local youths from immigrant backgrounds is often blamed.

In Amiens this week people told me the violence was sparked by an overzealous stop and search. But it is no secret that in these suburbs there is also a suffocating sense of alienation.

In 2005, three weeks of similar rioting spread from Paris to other parts of the country, leading to an unprecedented state of emergency and much soul searching.

There was the inevitable rush to new job creating initiatives - but seven years on they have had little effect.

It is a direct challenge to Francois Hollande and his new Socialist government.

In Marseille, youth unemployment is as high as 40%.

A local crime reporter Francois Giorgetti told me that on some estates the drug gangs are now the only active employers.

"Young dealers treat it like a proper career," he said. "It's meticulously organized. There's a regular salary, they are divided between split shifts. Sure they are at risk - if you are not murdered you will probably end up in jail. But why would you not take the risk?"

Why not indeed! The rewards bring luxuries - the kind we see in the port - that would forever be out of reach.

So what does the president do? On the economy he was elected to restore social justice and close the growing gap between the well-heeled elite and the increasingly disgruntled working class.

On security, the country expects him to talk tough. "It's not a priority," he said "it is an obligation".

Notably his interior minister Manuel Valls is a hardliner, not to the taste of all in his party. Some compare him to one of his predecessors.

"We will wipe the scum from the streets." Remember that? It was Nicolas Sarkozy speaking in 2005.

I am sure Mr Valls will opt for a different choice of language but there is the same kind of intent. He has named Amiens and Marseille as two of his 15 "priority security zones" within France, to which they will now devote extra resources.

Image caption The clashes left a primary school in Amiens severely damaged by fire

But reversing the trend will be a mighty challenge. A few weeks ago I reported from the immigrant-heavy suburb of Aulnay-Sous-Bois, on the edge of Paris that was at centre of the 2005 riots.

Their biggest local employer PSA Peugeot Citroen has just announced it is closing its assembly plant with the loss of 5000 jobs.

One worker estimated that on his estate 80% of the adult men, most with families, are about to lose their jobs. Another perilous step on the road to grinding urban decline.

Yet France is hardly isolated in these difficulties. The Eurozone crisis has left its mark on others too, with unrest recently in Greece, Spain, Portugal and of course London.

In Britain the summer riots of 2011 brought some of the same kind of introspection. Yes, perhaps the Olympics have temporarily lifted the spirits, but they do not mask the underlying problems, which are similar.

Across Europe there is an underclass of young men and women, jobless and restless, and the events in France this week should serve as a warning to all.

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