Reporter's Notebook: Riding Into the Belly of the French Riot Beast

I knew we were going to have to watch our backs when we rolled into one of the main traffic circles of the housing project-dense Parisian suburb of Clichy-Sous-Bois. Our Renault VelSatis crunched over shattered stones and broken bottles.

"What are those?" I asked our driver and host for the evening, French government functionary Ludovic Toro.

"Oh, police and the kids just battled here five minutes ago," he replied calmly.

"Uh huh," I acknowledged, examining the thickness of the car’s side windows, thinking wistfully back to my countless rides in Iraq and Afghanistan, in armored Humvees, wishing I was in one at that moment.

I looked to my left and there were hundreds of riot gear-clad French policemen, standing around in groups, shield in one hand, a baton or rifle loaded with disturbance-ready flash balls in the other. To the right, standing around in smaller but also numerous groups, hooded youths watching and talking among themselves. Plotting.

At a signal two groups of cops marched in unison into two different areas of the housing projects, looking to draw out troublemakers. The fight was on again.

We had already seen police helicopters in the sky providing cover to authorities on the ground. And we had heard that the French were even using surveillance drone planes, the kind used in Afghanistan to hunt for Al Qaeda, to watch over the ghettoes. This was getting serious.

Attention was being paid to Clichy-Sous-Bois because it was in this town that one year ago this past weekend two mixed-race teenagers died in an electric substation fleeing police, triggering three weeks of riots in Clichy and other poor immigrant French suburbs. They were disturbances more serious than had been seen in France for decades.

In the year since, by one account, France had thrown as much as half a billion dollars’ worth of social programs at the problem. The ruckus mostly caused by mainly Muslim Arab and African youths, feeling left out of French society as unemployment among their numbers runs as high as 40-50%.

Some critics contend, though, the youths decide on their own, job or no job, that they don’t want to be a part of French society. That included our host Toro.

"They say they want jobs," he remarked, "Then they cause trouble. That doesn’t make sense."

As we drove around Clichy I was reminded of Co-op City in the Bronx, New York. Tall housing blocks with open space around, isolated from the rest of the picturesque France that tourists know. And overall, at first glance the place didn’t look that alarming.

But look closer and we saw the rundown nature of the buildings. Look closer still and knots of youths can be seen hanging out everywhere. Mix high unemployment in with a low level of transportation and other services and one can understand how these places can become social pressure cookers.

A lot has been made of the possible Islamist bent of the unrest. One police union dubbed the riots an Urban Intifada. Others think it’s all run by drug gangs running free through this terrain. But still others, myself included, think it's more random than that, copycat rowdiness created by kids with a lot of anger and little respect for authorities.

As we kept driving around the sprawling complexes we certainly did see the authorities out in strength. More police were manning checkpoints and stopping cars. Setting up mini-bases at major intersections. Marching along the streets. Riding in vehicles to other locations. This "suburban" town was nothing short of an armed camp.

Law and order IS the other response of the French government. Starting with Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments last year that he would clean up the "scum" in the suburbs using his police like high-pressure steam cleaners. For the riot anniversary he had laid on 4000 extra police in the Paris region. Most of them seemed to be in the town we were in.

It is a tough line, which increasingly plays well with the French populace. People like host Toro. "The problem is these kids commit crimes," he observed, " and then because they’re 15 or 16 years-old, they get away with it."

The unrest and the conditions spawning it are turning into one of the major issues in the just-beginning campaign for the French Presidency. Elections are next Spring and tough guy Sarkozy is touted to be the center-right’s candidate. He’s been offering a carrot and stick approach to the problems. His likely center-left opponent, Segolene Royale, is suggesting some tough measures, too, but relying more on the social side.

The immediate need, though, for French authorities, and ourselves, was to get through a night like that one relatively unscathed. There were clashes reported in the town we were in the night we were there. And we came across at least one gas-fueled roadside trash fire.

But we didn’t see in that town some of the more extreme violence exhibited in recent days in France, including a rash of hijacked and torched buses. And we didn’t see violence levels anywhere near what we saw a year ago, when a drive through the French suburbs strewn with burning cars and trucks was more like a scene out of "Apocalypse Now."

But it was risky enough. So risky that the whole time we were driving around the town we didn’t see any other media. I know from experience that a trip to the suburbs is not high on the list of favorite activities for any French cameraman. And we got a lot of glares from locals who clearly didn’t want their activities recorded for posterity.

So after an hour and a half or so driving around (We never risked stopping which would only make our un-armored car the very visible target for stones, bottles and Molotov cocktails) we told our host Toro we had seen enough. France, however, might be seeing a lot more trouble before it figures out how to head off more of these skirmishes.

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.