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16 Jun, 2020 16:49

A social sore left to fester? How Dijon became the scene of open gang war

A social sore left to fester? How Dijon became the scene of open gang war

The French city of Dijon was rocked by chaotic scenes reminiscent of a war zone as rival gangs clashed following an assault on a Chechen teen – but was it more a “battle of territories” in a drugs war than simple score-settling?

For several nights, the rule of law seemed suspended in parts of the historic French tourist town, as Chechen and Maghreb gangs openly brandished weapons and took over city streets, prompting surreal scenes and leaving residents in fear of venturing outside their homes. 

Footage posted to Twitter showed a car speeding through a group of Chechens and flipping over, like a scene from a video game. The situation finally calmed on Monday, after the government deployed militarized police units to quell the unrest. Dijon Mayor François Rebsamen accused the Chechen community of attempting to “enforce its own right and law of retaliation.”

On social media, some offered the knee-jerk explanation that the violence gripping the French city was simply the inevitable result of immigration – and, indeed, the non-integration of Muslim immigrants in France has led to plenty of cultural clashes. Yet, the reality of how Dijon became the center of all-out gangland warfare is more complicated.

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‘Sensitive neighborhoods’

The problem, it appears, boils down to the ghettoization of certain areas left to fester in crime, where many residents are terrorized and living in fear, the increasing powerlessness of local police and the subsequent ability of drugs gangs to enforce their own rules.

The exact number of Chechens in France is not known, but it’s estimated that around 15,000 refugees from the Chechen wars of the 90s and early 2000s lived in the country as of 2018. The communities are notoriously insular, with members preferring to stick to their own and have each other’s backs above all else. This, combined with the presence of North African drugs gangs, creates a tinderbox scenario – a disaster waiting to happen.

“The hardest part is the language barrier,” which “makes integration and access to work difficult,” Naourbek Chokuev, who teaches French to Russian speakers in Strasbourg told the AFP news agency in 2018. Unsurprisingly, some Chechen youths in these areas are radicalized rather than integrated into wider French society.

Reporting on the recent violence, France’s BFMTV network referred to the areas worst affected as “sensitive neighborhoods,” though French nationals often refer to them as immigrant “banlieues” or city “quarters” that are to be avoided.


Drug wars and a ‘battle for territory’

One journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Le Temps news website that he finds it “difficult” to believe the recent outbreak of violence is simply reprisal for the assault on a 16-year-old Chechen teen, as most reports have suggested.

“Look at the map. Dijon is ideally placed on the route of drug trafficking. Between the drug which arrives from Turkey by the east and that which goes up from the south of France, it’s a knot,” the journalist said. He suspects that recent seizures of cannabis near Dijon in May with an estimated street value of €4.5 million ($5.1 million) could have fueled what he calls a "battle of territories,” rather than the recent mayhem being a simple retaliation for the alleged assault on the teenager.

The sudden escalation in violence was expected by some in Dijon, particularly as the Covid-19 lockdown began to wind down. “We felt that something was going to happen with the deconfinement,” one resident told Franceinfo, saying they had noticed that “the comings and goings of cars at drug outlets were much more than usual.”

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Public anger

An online poll by news website Le Figaro showed nearly 90 percent of respondents, out of more than 17,000, felt the police had not responded quickly enough to the violence.

There is certainly significant public anger over the seeming inability of the authorities to control the situation. The anger is all the more sharp because French citizens had to endure a stringent lockdown that saw even homeless citizens harassed by the police and fined for the crime of not remaining indoors. So futile were the attempts to enforce social distancing in the banlieues, however, that one government official advised police that it was “not a priority to enforce closings in certain neighborhoods.”

Legalization of drugs

An op-ed in the libertarian Contrepoint newspaper argued that police spend far too much time punishing ordinary citizens for non-violent and victimless crimes, while permitting total lawlessness among others.

The state is everywhere, it “monitors and punishes motorists who drive a little too fast or dispatches helicopters to discourage hikers who do not respect” Covid-19 rules, but it “does not fulfill its mission of fundamental protection” by allowing such scenes of street violence to unfold, the author wrote.

A possible solution, he said, would be to legalize the use and trade of cannabis. That would have “the concrete result of eliminating the mafias which are enriched by its trafficking and would allow the police to focus on something other than hunting down small dealers.” This, in turn, could bring down the levels of violence, he said.

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A new normal?

While the problem of gang violence in the banlieues is hardly a new phenomenon, given that French police have been dealing with such issues for years, it certainly seems to be spinning more out of control and seeping out of the suburbs and into the cities themselves – a development that’s bound to spark fresh public debate on the situation.

“Until now,” one French columnist wrote in Le Figaro, “we imagined [this behavior] exclusively reserved for the ghettoized districts of the suburbs.”

Now these “symbolic boundaries” are disappearing, and the violence is metastasizing and out of control. Like many, she argues, this is because the powers-that-be have “turned a blind eye” to the endemic violence in these neighborhoods and given up enforcing the law.

There is a fear, she adds, that the scenes witnessed at the weekend in Dijon may not be an isolated case, “but the revealer of what awaits us in the future.”

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