On the Ground: Amid rampaging youths in France

October 21, 2010 at 12:24pm

Riot police officers fire tear gas on students in Nanterre, near Paris, on Oct. 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Michel Euler) © 2010 AP

Riot police officers fire tear gas on students in Nanterre, near Paris, on Oct. 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Michel Euler) © 2010 AP


Greg Keller is one of several AP journalists in France covering strikes and protests over a proposed increase in the country's retirement age. Here's his account of what happened yesterday outside a high school in Nanterre, France.


The first thing I noticed was the smashed glass.


It littered the sidewalks of Nanterre early yesterday morning, a day after rioting teens rampaged through the town west of Paris, burning cars and causing havoc. Every bus stop and illuminated advertising sign I passed on my walk from the train station to the Lycee Joliot-Curie high school had been shattered.


It was still calm at 8 a.m. when I arrived. A large group of students hung out in front of the school, chatting and laughing. I had to double-check that a protest was even taking place.


"If it doesn't go off by 9:00 or 10:00, nothing's going to happen today," Daniel Cardoso, a student, told me.


Cardoso said there was a rumor a large group of riot police was positioned about a half-mile away. I went to look, and indeed, about 10 blue police vans were parked around a corner out of sight.


I went into a cafe to e-mail my boss and grab a quick coffee, and by the time I got back to the school, the atmosphere had changed dramatically. Around 100 masked and hooded teens had mixed in with a crowd of students that had grown to several hundred, blocking two lanes of a wide boulevard in front of the school.


I could see a line of helmeted and shield-wielding riot police several hundred yards down the avenue, blocking off access to some of town's main administrative buildings.


There was no organization, no one giving directions. A group of red-jacketed adults sent by city hall mixed in with the students, in a brave if futile attempt to calm the atmosphere. The mob, led by a core of around 20 or 30 of the masked teens, walked quickly in the opposite direction, toward the commercial heart of town.



A photographer and I suddenly found ourselves at the front of the crowd, near the most radical of the masked youths. We picked up the pace as we entered a large traffic roundabout, but it was too late — we'd been spotted.


"Who are you? Who are you?" a crazed youth began shouting as he and a dozen friends advanced menacingly toward us. Just then one of the red jackets, a woman I'd interviewed earlier, appeared and ushered us away fast, under a barrage of stones.


Then the crowd ran down a narrow street leading to the center of town, with armored police in hot pursuit. We used side streets to circle around and catch up with the front of the roving mob.


The rest of the morning was a back-and-forth street battle. Cameramen and photographers would venture into the no-man's-land between the two sides, only to be chased back by a charge from bottle- and rock-throwing teens. When they began stoning a government building, police fired so much tear gas that the cloud cut the mob off completely from sight.


Around noon, a final push from the police had forced the teens out of the city center and back into a housing project up a hill from the school.


I only witnessed one arrest, when a group of five or six plainclothes officers dragged a husky boy of maybe 15 out of a confused melee near the housing project.


He was crying and looked seriously worried about what his mother was going to say.




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