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France riots: Within days we were in hell, says mayor

Zartoshte Bakhtiari says he hasn’t slept more than three hours a night since the riots in France began a week ago.

By day, he’s the mayor of Neuilly-sur-Marne, in one of France’s poorest areas, east of Paris.

By night, he patrols the streets with a dozen staff and city councillors until 04:00 or 05:00, acting as an early warning system for police taking on the rioters there.

“Within days, we [were] in hell,” he tells me.

On Tuesday, he’ll head to the Élysée Palace with more than 200 other mayors to discuss the crisis with French President Emmanuel Macron.

His request is for “more toughness” from the state, and permission for the local city police to use drones to monitor activity in the town.

“What’s happening now is the result of years of weakness from politicians, and decisions that have not been taken,” he says.

“It’s a problem of authority because these [rioters] don’t fear justice. [They] may go to court, but they come back home a few hours after trial simply because we don’t have enough places in jail in this district of Paris. We cannot support this kind of weakness from the state.”

Just outside his office in the town hall is the charred wall of the local city police station.

“They jumped over this wall at 1am with a jerrycan of petrol,” Mayor Bakhtiari explains, gesturing to the fleet of seven charred squad cars, their ashen skeletons lined up beneath the blackened façade.

But the building was shared with the public housing department, tasked with finding homes for 2,300 local people.

Inside, the office is a carbonised shell of melted plastic and ash. Not all the paper files were digitised. The details of many of those most desperate for housing here have been wiped from the records by the fire.

The head of the housing department, Laurence Tendron Brunet, stands among the burnt ruins in tears.

“I’m so sad,” she says. “We’re going to rebuild, we’re going to start again. But right now there are people who are so desperate for housing. I know about half of them – when they call, I recognise their voices. They’re not files, they’re human beings.”

Mayor Bakhtiari says the arsonists were caught on a video surveillance camera, and from the footage they appear to be teenagers, perhaps 14-16 years old.

“I find it hard to understand that it’s children who are destroying things,” Laurence says, “because at that age, your parents should be responsible for you.”

Round the back of the building, overlooking the car park with its fleet of charred police vehicles, we find a neighbour who filmed the fire on his mobile phone, and agreed to speak to us anonymously.

“Typical,” he says, when he hears about the suspected age of the arsonists. “Organised thugs launch kids of 11 or 13 into the event, telling them: ‘you’ll never go to prison, so go ahead.’ That’s the norm here; they send the young kids [to] the front line. It’s a gang tactic.”


Source: BBC

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