THE MORNING is filled with the yelps and screams of children playing under the pounding sun, their backdrop the Alpine foothills that rise majestically at every turn and make Villeneuve one of the most picturesque of Grenoble’s suburbs. Were it not for the faint smell of burnt rubber and some smashed windows here and there, the weekend’s riots might never have happened.
“It’s a very good area,” says Lorette Devos, a local pensioner who says she sat in her flat at night listening to the crackle of shots but couldn’t bring herself to look out the window.
“Even the young people – they open doors and they respect me. I’ve lived here for 11 years and I never saw anything like it.” Nobody had, but the general view in Villeneuve – a suburb of about 11,000 people a few kilometres south of Grenoble’s city centre – is that the violence that flared last weekend was a culmination of tensions that had been building for at least a year.
The incident that lit the fuse was the death of Karim Boudouda, a 27-year-old local man who was shot dead by police last Thursday after he allegedly took part in the armed robbery of a casino. The local prosecutor said police acted in legitimate self-defence after they were fired on three times following a car chase that ended near the flat complex where Boudouda lived in Villeneuve.
A large crowd gathered near the spot for a memorial service on Friday evening, and as night fell, police began receiving reports of cars and scooters being torched. A Republican Security Companies (CRS) riot police unit was called in, and a tense standoff developed between police and a group of up to 40 youths.
Some were armed with baseball bats and stones, local authorities said, but events escalated in the early hours of Saturday, when shots were fired at police and they responded in kind. By morning, about 60 cars had been torched and interior minister Brice Hortefeux had ordered the deployment of 300 extra police, including two heavily armed elite commando-type units identified by their black balaclavas and unmarked vehicles. The violence continued, albeit on a smaller scale, on subsequent nights.
In the Relais des Baladins, the newsagents shop he opened six weeks ago in the heart of Villeneuve, Mehdi Tsouria (32) – who was born and raised here – explains that the community had been on edge in recent months after a number of horrific attacks had brought outside attention on Grenoble. In May, three young men held a couple captive in nearby Echirolles before raping the woman and taking the couple’s credit cards and their car, while in June two youths shot dead a man in his 70s in order to steal his wallet.
Within hours of Boudouda’s death, a rumour began to circulate in Villeneuve that he was shot while lying on the ground, and then kicked by officers. In a community where the police are reviled by many, the story took hold.
“I’m not making excuses for Karim,” says Tsouria. “But he was the same age as my little brother, and he was a nice man. He wasn’t the stereotype of the tough guy who scowled at everyone who passed him.
“He left prison at 24 after serving five years [for armed robbery]. What do you do when you come out of prison like that but get caught up in it again?”
It’s a cliche to remark that communities such as Villeneuve have been abandoned by civic authorities. But here it’s not even remotely true.
The green space surrounded by the 1970s flat complexes has its own football pitches and well-equipped playgrounds, while a huge new shopping centre stands nearby. Dozens of voluntary groups are based here, and the city organises concerts and other events during the summer.
Neither is the area an ethnic or social ghetto: transport is good, those with an immigrant background account for 40 per cent of the population and – although some are opting to leave due to the violence – many of the flats are owned by middle-class residents.
Whereas those on the right blame the city’s left-wing administrators for allowing the degradation of places such as Villeneuve, others blame Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision while interior minister to cut back on community policing for severing the link between police and local youths. But the most serious problems, residents say, are rising violence and the growth of the drug trade.
“I see a new sort of audacity in these young people – the lengths they’ll go to to get their hands on €10 or €100,” says Isabelle Métral, a retired teacher and a Communist Party activist who has lived here “without fear” for 30 years.
To compound matters, guns are increasingly easy to come by in Villeneuve: “These eastern European guys” can supply a handgun for €200 or a Kalashnikov for about €700, says Tsouria.
Just last week, Métral passed two unarmed municipal policemen having a heated exchange with some local boys. She thought nothing of it, but later heard that a 16-year-old had pulled out a handgun and pointed it at the officers. “They’re ready to use extreme violence against people,” says Métral. “And the reality is that all this violence hits poor people just like them. It’s totally blind, what they’re doing.”