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Fires, rioting & ambushes: Police say Paris suburbs ‘BACK TO NORMAL’ after month of lockdown (VIDEOS)

Lockdown measures imposed a period of calm on the Paris suburb of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, but a weekend of riots and arson marked a depressing return to normal for the troubled neighborhood after a new police-involved controversy.

France has been under lockdown since March 17, with all non-essential trips from home banned. As such, crime-ridden neighborhoods like Villeneuve-la-Garenne saw a decrease in criminal activity, with drug dealers, thieves and vandals forced to remain indoors. 

A weekend of social unrest changed that. As vehicles were lit on fire and police were attacked with fireworks on Monday night, one police officer told Le Parisien that while “the first weeks of confinement had been strangely calm,” the unrest was “a return to normal” for the area.

The violence kicked off on Saturday night, when a motorcyclist collided with the open door of a police car, fracturing his leg. Multiple accounts of the incident have circulated, with angry locals accusing the police of opening the door to violently stop the biker, and police accusing the man of attempting to squeeze dangerously past the car and flee. A police union spokeswoman told Le Figaro that the rider had a criminal record and refused to obey police commands to stop.

A mob quickly formed, and began pelting the officers with “projectiles,” witnesses told AFP. Unrest soon spread to the streets beyond, with fireworks lobbed at officers and garbage bins set alight. As accusations of racism and police brutality spread on social media, residents in other minority-populated suburbs – Asnieres, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Saint-Denis, Villepinte, and Neuilly-sur-Marne – joined in the chaos.

Riot police were still on the streets of Villeneuve-la-Garenne on Monday night, using batons and sub-lethal weaponry to force residents indoors.

The riots have been portrayed in French and international media as a response to the coronavirus lockdown. However, neighborhoods like Villeneuve-la-Garenne are well known as crime hotspots. Neighboring Saint-Denis, for example, has become a byword for lawlessness, with a 2018 government report finding that “drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking are massively present” in the neighborhood.

Villeneuve-la-Garenne is just as plagued by crime, police union spokeswoman Linda Kebbab told Le Figaro. “In reality, confinement only exacerbates situations which unfortunately also exist the rest of the year,” she said. Kebbab described the riots as an attempt by criminals to “reclaim control” of the area, and accused locals of circulating photographs of the officers responsible for the motorcycle accident on social media, in order to “stir up violence against the police.”

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Still, France’s Human Rights League has criticized police across the country for their heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown. “In France, discriminatory and abusive police checks against people because of their physical appearance...are common and are rarely sanctioned,” the group claimed in March, after a slew of videos showing police brutality surfaced on Twitter.

“We fear that these illegal practices will intensify in the coming weeks, and this in a climate of pre-existing impunity,” the organization added.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said that lockdown measures will be lifted on May 11. At time of writing, more than 155,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported in France, and more than 20,000 people have died.

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