Freshly-trained officers of a new French police service fan out in Paris' volatile suburbs on Monday, on a risky mission to reach out to poor multi-ethnic communities who largely fear and loathe the police.
Five months after the latest outbreak of suburban rioting, the officers will go on patrol in three of the toughest neighborhoods of northeast Paris as part of national pilot project launched by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Advertisement"These are experienced police officers," said David Skuli, head of public security for the Seine Saint Denis region, a sprawling area dotted with grimy housing estates where up to 40 percent of residents are under the age of 30.
"They were chosen to restore public trust in policing," he said of the 50 officers of the UTEQs, or neighborhood territorial units, who underwent a two-week training course in Bobigny, east of Paris, before hitting the streets in France's crime heartland.
All of the officers volunteered to be part of the new service that will focus heavily on developing streetwise intelligence on gangs, drug runners and arsonists who in 2005 went on a three-week rampage, burning cars and buildings.
They will also work to present a human face to suburban residents, who have come to fear police raids and the frequent ID checks by officers armed with Taser electroshock weapons and Flash-ball rubber bullet guns.
Police officer Catherine Vaillot, who grew up in the high-crime area of La Courneuve, said she volunteered because she despaired that "people had stopped coming to the police station to report crimes."
"I really do think that something needed to be done," said Vaillot, 47, who has been working in La Courneuve for 11 years.
"I want to develop this relationship of trust with citizens because they expect a lot from us in those tough neighborhoods. There are not just criminals living there, there are a lot of honest people who come home after a hard day's work and want to enjoy some tranquility.
Vaillot believes she can make a difference by walking the beat.
"We will be in that sector every day. People will see us and know us," she said.
The new police service will replace a neighborhood force that was dismantled by then-interior minister Sarkozy in 2002, a decision that critics say stoked tension between the police and the suburbs' immigrant youth.
"Relations have broken down with the police," said Mehdi Bigaderne, spokesman for AC Le Feu (Enough Fire!), a community group founded after the 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, the flashpoint of the rioting.
"When the police come around, we feel like hunted animals. We don't feel that they are there for our security," said Bigarderne, whose group has welcomed the new units as positive step.
France still bears the scars of three weeks of suburban riots in 2005, triggered by the electrocution deaths of two teenage boys who allegedly were fleeing a police check.
The latest major outbreak of violence was in the Paris suburb of Villiers-le-Bel in November when two teenagers riding a motorbike died after they collided with a police car, sparking three days of riots.
More than 100 police officers were injured in Villiers-le-Bel when rioters armed with hunting rifles and pellet guns opened fire, a new, worrisome turn in the ongoing clashes with police in the suburbs.
During training, the officers received guidance from an expert psychologist on questioning young offenders and were taught about the cultural and religious practices of the more than 40 nationalities who live in the suburbs.
Nordine Zine, 34, one of only a handful of officers of north African origin played down the importance of his immigrant roots and knowledge of Arabic in his new policing duties.
"It's not a question of one's origins. It's about respect," he said.
"I think people will be surprised to see us, to see that we are faithfully there."
Prime Minister Francois Fillon has said the police force will be waging a "societal struggle" in the suburbs by using its most "baddle-hardened" officers.
"Faced with a culture of violence and hate, a disdain for our common rules, the struggle for civility and mutual respect is a societal struggle," he said.
La Courneuve, Clichy-Montfermeil and Saint-Denis have been chosen as test sites for the new police force and plans are underway to expand it to Toulouse and up to 200 other tinderbox suburbs.
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