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Students in France reflect on violent riots

For Matthew Yelovich, a junior studying abroad in Paris this semester, hosting friends from the Duke in Florence program this past weekend proved a disquieting experience.

"Our inevitable trip to the Eiffel Tower was marred by views of billowing smoke in the distance," Yelovich wrote in an e-mail.

The smoke was issuing from the Paris suburbs, where racially fueled rioting took hold after the Oct. 27 deaths of two black teenagers. Local residents blamed the deaths on Paris police.

The violence has since spread to other parts of France, including central Paris, where some Duke students are living.

"The rioters burned cars in my neighborhood on Saturday night, which is the first time that the violence reached into the center of the city," junior Steven Bressler wrote in an e-mail. "I don't know exactly whether or not to feel threatened, but it is important to know that the school has informed us to be 'on guard.'"

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called for curfews Monday under a state-of-emergency law. He also said police reservists would be summoned to stop the rioting that has spread into hundreds of cities and towns across the country.

Jean-Jacques Thomas, professor of romance studies, literature and linguistics and on-campus director for the Duke in France program, said all Duke students are safe. The Paris office for EDUCO-a cooperative program between Emory University, Cornell University and Duke-is conducting meetings with students to discuss security.

"We got a notice from our program telling us to be careful and giving instructions on how to stay safe-to travel in groups, to avoid really crowded areas, to leave if we see something happening," junior Megan Erickson said.

Michele Longino, a professor of romance studies and the visiting faculty director for Duke in France, noted that the EDUCO consortium has an evacuation plan that has been reviewed by staff and is ready to be put into action if the need arises. "Depending on the situation, the students would be evacuated out of the city and to a safe place in the country, or repatriated to the U.S.," she wrote.

It has been reported that thus far one person has been killed, nearly 5,000 cars have been torched, at least 108 police officers and firefighters have been injured and hundreds of people have been arrested. The violence is considered one of the most serious challenges to French governmental authority in recent decades.

Longino noted, however, that parents, friends and administrators should not be greatly alarmed by the unrest.

"While it is a severe crisis for the French, it has not had any serious consequences for our students here," she said.

Several Duke students said they have not witnessed or been directly affected by any of the violence.

"I didn't know that anything was going on until I checked the news online," wrote junior Evelyn Chang, who lives near the St. Sulpice district. "Life in the city is still very normal, and it feels safe."

Yelovich noted that the atmosphere in Paris has not changed apart from a noticeable increase in security personnel in the city's busier districts. He said he was recently stopped by the RATP-the major transit authority in Paris-for the first time during his trip.

"I still feel safe, but should the violence escalate further in the capital that sense of security may change," Yelovich wrote.

Junior Flora MacIvor added that with the bus system and metro lines limiting service to the city's north side and running more slowly, public transportation has become a problem for residents of Paris.

"Normally the metro is really efficient here," MacIvor said. "But this weekend it was taking five- to 10-minute stops instead of the usual 20-second stops."

Faculty and students in Paris commented on the rioting as a part of a larger social and political problem.

"It has taken place in the suburbs where the housing projects are concentrated, where the unemployment rate is high, where the youth feel totally alienated from French society and see themselves without a future," Longino said.

Junior Taylor Jacobson wrote in an e-mail that he disapproved of the French political response to the violence.

"Sadly the riots have turned into a jockeying opportunity for the 2007 political candidates, a fact which has dominated the news here much more than the actions being taken to ameliorate the situation," he wrote.

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