European cities on guard for French-style violence

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - Images of French ghettos in flames are causing increasing discomfort across Europe and have raised fears the violence could spread across borders.

London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome, Brussels and other cities with large immigrant populations are on the lookout for any signs of copycats of the urban violence that has engulfed Paris and other French cities, destroying cars, shops and schools.

Smoke rises from the burnt out buildings of a commercial centre in Evreux, 96Km (60 miles) west of Paris early November 6, 2005. (REUTERS/Franck Prevel)
So far there have been only isolated reports of wanton violence beyond France's borders -- five cars set on fire in Berlin on Sunday night and six in the western German city of Bremen. In Brussels, five cars were also set alight on Sunday.

Leaders in Britain, Germany and elsewhere point to unique circumstances in France that make it less likely that they will face similar rioting. But there are nevertheless potential powder kegs in countries with large foreign populations.

"Everybody's concerned at what is happening," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Monday. "I send every support to the French government and to the French people in dealing with the situation. You should never be complacent about these things, although I think our situation is in some ways different."

The Paris violence was sparked by frustration among ethnic minorities over racism, unemployment and harsh treatment by police. Many of the rioters are French-born citizens of Arab or African origin. Many feel trapped in the drab suburbs, built in the 1960s and 1970s to house waves of immigrant workers.

"The conditions in France are different from what we have here," said Wolfgang Schaeuble, designated interior minister in the new German government.

"We don't have the giant apartment blocks you see outside French cities," he told Bild daily. "But we do have areas where foreigners are increasingly disconnected from the mainstream. We must improve integration, particularly of young people."

Berlin state interior minister Ehrhart Koerting said the arsonists who burned cars were not part of any organised attack and he doesn't fear the spread of any French-style violence.

"We assume that these were copycats who are taking advantage of the situation in France to do the same thing here," Koerting told Reuters. "I think there are no reasons for the situation among the immigrants to erupt here."


May Day riots hit Berlin every year on May 1 and luxury cars in Kreuzberg, once a haven for squatters now being turned into a high-rent district, are occasionally torched by leftist extremists. But there is no ethnic element to the attacks.

"There is no way violence as intense as in France would hit Germany or most other European countries," Nadeem Elyas, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, told Reuters. Some 3.2 million Muslims live in Germany, making it the second largest Muslim community in Europe after France.

"The dividing line in Germany is not between immigrants and non-immigrants, it's more between the socially disadvantaged and those who are not socially disadvantaged," he added. "And you find a lot of immigrants in both of those groups in Germany."

In Rome, opposition leader Romano Prodi was accused of inciting violence for saying Italian cities might soon suffer the sort of rioting afflicting France. He said the government needed to take urgent action to improve life in Italy's more deprived suburbs if it wanted to stave off future trouble.

"We have the worst suburbs in Europe," Prodi told reporters on Saturday. "I don't think things (here) are so different from Paris. It's only a question of time."

In the Netherlands, where almost 20 percent of the population is of foreign descent, the riots in France are also being closely monitored.

"We really don't need to be afraid that the Netherlands or Europe will be in flames within a few weeks," Han Entzinger, professor of migration and integration studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, told the Algemeen Dagblad daily.

"In France there is an explosive mixture," he added. "The apartment blocks in the suburbs were put up for the newcomers. That is a big difference to here. Our immigrants ended up in existing districts and houses of much better quality."

But Entzinger said the threat of violence could not be ruled out: "I don't want to say that it would never happen here. But perhaps then it would be on a much smaller scale."

In Belgium, the Arab European League that was accused of being behind race riots that hit Antwerp in 2002, said there are similar conditions for French-style violence in Belgium.

"One incident could set things on fire," Karim Hassoun, chairman of the AEL Belgium division, wrote on their website. "The consequences will be immeasurable."

(Additional reporting by Emma Thomasson in Amsterdam, Andrew Gray in London, Bart Crols in Brussels, Crispian Balmer in Rome and James Mackenzie in Berlin)