"Youths" challenge the French state
David Rennie in Paris
Symbols of the French state, including policemen, firemen and postmen, are under intensified attack from disaffected youths as the country faces the worst race relations crisis in its history.
Hardly a night passes without gangs — many of them from immigrant families — attacking police cars, buses and emergency rescue teams.
Yesterday, the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published a confidential report drawn up by a public service trade union, the CGT, containing scores of eye-witness accounts of brutal attacks on public servants who work in the worst suburbs, or "banlieues", from gas board workers to staff from the electricity company.
Its publication follows the revelation that attacks on police have soared this year, with some 14 a day, and a growing number of incidents in which officers have been lured into ambushes.
This has prompted a warning that the day France witnesses the lynching of a policeman is not far off.
The CGT report painted a graphic picture of violence: blocks of cement dropped on paramedic crews; washing machines pushed off balconies on to fire engines; electricity company agents too scared to cut off customers who have not paid bills, after being attacked with knives, guns and fists.
On the Right and Left, politicians have accused youths of singling out symbols of the state, in an attempt to show that they, and not the French republic, are the law in their run-down neighbourhoods.
Shortly after three weeks of rioting that gripped French suburbs last November, Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and favourite to be the Centre-Right candidate for the French presidency next year, said the violence, which left scores of businesses in ruins and nearly 10,000 cars burned, was above all "territorial". Gangs were trying to seize control of a piece of territory, "and rule it by force", Mr Sarkozy said in an interview with Le Point magazine.
Mr Sarkozy is admired and loathed in equal measure for his vocal pledges to crack down on such "scum", as he called rioters last year, and his policies of sending heavily armed police units into the worst neighbourhoods, in a show of force.
This week, a year later, Le Nouvel Observateur found a clear echo in the views of a politician on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Communist mayor of Sevran, a poor north-eastern Paris suburb. Youths who burned buses or attacked firemen were only hurting their own families and neighbours, who would be deprived of the few remaining public services, said the mayor, Stephane Gatignon. "For them it's a way of showing they exist, that this is their home, their territory."
The banlieues' inhabitants include millions of immigrants. Some police representatives, notably the small, fringe trade union Action Police, squarely blame radical Muslim imams for whipping up the violence, talking of an "intifada" in the banlieues. But a leaked report by the French police intelligence service, the Renseignements Généraux (RG), concluded last year that Islamists had "no role in setting off the violence", which it described as a "popular revolt" against the authorities.
A more recent report by the RG, leaked to Le Figaro last month, also reported, in a tone of some relief, that rumours of angry youths in different suburbs linking up in organised networks were not true.
A close study of the CGT trade union report also revealed a less than political motivation for attacks. Many workers from the gas board, electricity or telephone companies reported being attacked after accidentally witnessing drug deals, or stumbling on caches of drugs or weapons belonging to criminal gangs.
Crime in the banlieues is described as a part of life, and while billions of pounds have been spent on some estates many remain grim concrete widernesses with unemployment at 20 per cent, or double the national average, with youth unemployment still higher.