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Violence flares in tense Paris suburbs as heavy-handed lockdown stirs explosive cocktail

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Three nights of unrest in the French capitals northern suburbs have stoked fears of a major flare-up in deprived neighbourhoods where weeks of lockdown have exacerbated the simmering tensions between restless youths and police.

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Six weeks into Frances nationwide lockdown, Zouhair Ech-Chetouani is an increasingly worried man. In more than 20 years of social work, the community leader says the restive northern suburbs of Paris have never felt quite so tense.

According to Ech-Chetouani, the strict confinement rules to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with tough policing enforcing those rules, have mixed up an “explosive cocktail” in areas already blighted by poverty, unemployment and now a worsening health crisis.

“The spark has been lit,” he says, referring to the unrest that has swept through several northern suburbs of Paris in recent nights.

The trouble in Villeneuve-La-Garenne first flared late on Saturday after a motorcyclist collided with the open door of an unmarked police car during a pursuit. Witnesses said the officers had deliberately opened the door into the motorcyclist's path, a claim denied by police.

The skirmishes lasted into the early hours of Sunday before calm was restored but unrest broke out again the following two nights, spreading to other suburbs north of Paris. Police said fireworks were aimed at them and several cars were torched while officers fired tear gas to disperse the troublemakers.

A history of violence

Relations between police and residents have long been a fraught issue in Frances economically poor and ethnically diverse suburbs, where men of African and North African origin complain about being routinely stopped and searched simply because of the colour of their skin.

A study by France's National Centre for Scientific Research has shown that blacks are 11.5 times more likely to be checked by police than whites, and those of Arab origin are seven times more likely.

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In what has become a depressing cycle of violence and resentment, such routine checks can lead to violent altercations and eventually riots, a daunting prospect the French government is desperate to avoid as it grapples with a health emergency.

When President Emmanuel Macron imposed a nationwide lockdown starting March 17, police officers privately expressed concerns that tough restrictions on public life could amplify tensions and spark unrest.

In late March, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé, a leading source of investigative journalism, reported that the Interior Ministry had quietly asked police chiefs to adopt a light touch as they seek to enforce the lockdown in restive suburbs so as not to inflame tensions.

However, activists on the ground say the police approach has been anything but light.

Disproportionate force

On the first day of confinement, the Seine-Saint-Denis department northeast of Paris – home to Frances poorest districts – accounted for 10 percent of all fines handed out for breaching the lockdown despite comprising just over 2 percent of the countrys population.

Since then, videos of heavy-handed arrests have circulated widely on French social media, along with calls for revenge.

“Youre much less likely to see police fining and harassing parents who play with their children in the Bois de Boulogne,” says Echi-Chetouani, referring to the park that borders the 16th arrondissement (district) of Paris in the French capitals affluent west.

The social worker says the situation has considerably worsened since the start of the lockdown, which he argues has only heightened a sense of power and impunity among the police.

“When there are people out in the streets, police abuses are less likely to go unnoticed,” he explains. “But with residents locked up at home, the police have become more violent and arbitrary.”

He adds: “Of course, most officers do their work conscientiously. But it only takes a few bad apples eager to settle scores for things to get out of hand very fast.”

In late March, a coalition of rights groups including Human Rights Watch released a statement denouncing the polices “unacceptable”, “illegal” and “sometimes dangerous” practices.

“The current state of sanitary emergency should not be in breach of the rule of law and does not justify discriminatory checks or unjustified and disproportionate force,” the statement read.

Police unions, which did not return FRANCE 24s requests for comment, have rejected the accusations, noting that officers are constantly targeted and provoked by youths in tense suburbs.

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