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By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI, Associated Press writer

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, Paris -- Night after night of rioting across France in which children as young as 10 have hurled firebombs and torched cars has prompted many people to ask: Where were the parents?
The rampaging in the impoverished, mainly immigrant neighborhoods underscores not only tensions in French society but also troubles in the homes where many of the rioters have grown up.
Many parents are struggling to make ends meet, leaving them little time for their children. They often can hardly communicate with their sons and daughters: Many parents are not French citizens and never learn to speak French, while their children don't learn the language of their ancestors.
Some parents even blame the recent riots on a French law that prohibits them from hitting their kids, which they say renders them powerless to assert control.
The government wants parents to be more responsible. But aid groups wonder if parents even know what their children are up to.
Fatna, an Algerian immigrant who agreed to speak on condition her last name not be used, insists on the innocence of her 21-year-old son, who was sentenced to two months in jail for a role in the riots.
Most of the people interviewed would only allow their first names to be used, and even then only reluctantly. They appeared worried about drawing the attention of their neighbors.
"Life is very difficult here," Fatna said in Arabic. She, like her husband, is illiterate and doesn't speak French despite having lived here for more than 25 years.
Fatna said her son, Khaled, was at home when the first riots broke out in their home town, Clichy-Sous-Bois, on Oct. 27. But at 10 p.m. the next day he went to the local teahouse as he did every night during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
She didn't think much of it when he failed to return home, because it wasn't unusual. Sometimes, she said, he stayed with his sister.
Instead, Khalad had been arrested with other youths for participating in the riots. She pleaded with the magistrate that her son was innocent. "They said that's what all parents say," said Fatna. Still, she is convinced her son was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Khaled, who dropped out of school after failing his high school exams, is unemployed. He worked for eight months and then stopped, but his mother said she didn't know what kind of job he had.
"I don't read, I don't write," she said. "I don't know anything.
"They don't give work to the young. The young are not treated well by the police," said Fatna, who has never worked outside the home.
Parents complain their children don't listen to them, often lie and sometimes threaten to report the parents to police for abusing them if they can't have their way.
Many children express frustration at having to comply with values they don't share.
"France is a democratic country. It gives rights to women and children," said Abderrahman Bouhout, director of the Bilal Mosque in Clichy-Sous-Bois. "Now parents cannot do anything -- if they hit their 12-year-old, police will come to their door. There's a hot line the kids can call to report parental abuse."
Children have "too much freedom," complained Abdelhalim Salah, 68, arguing that government policy has undermined parents.
There were isolated reports of violence in parts of France late Friday as the unrest continued for a 16th night, and in the south, an attacker threw two firebombs into a mosque during Friday prayers, causing minor damage. It was not immediately clear if the attack was linked to the wider unrest.
Sabrine, a 41-year-old mother of four who came from Tunisia 20 years ago, said police shouldn't blame parents for failing to stop the trouble.
"We cannot bring up our kids the way we want, to teach them Islam," said Sabrine, adding that France encourages children to choose how they want to practice religion.
"They say religion is not obligatory or that parents are not allowed to make their children wear the hijab (veil) or to pray," she said. "They want to give our children the same freedoms they give to the French."
Some youths admit they don't take grown-ups seriously.
"The 'elders' of the projects have tried to calm us down, but we don't care," said 20-year-old Karim, rolling a hashish joint.
According to Sonia Imloul, who works with troubled teens in Seine-Saint-Denis, the Paris-area town hit hardest by the unrest, an estimated 40 percent of families in the suburbs are dysfunctional, causing a high rate of school dropouts, drug use, petty crime and aggressive behavior.
"What are 12-year-olds doing in the streets at midnight? Parents have no control over them," Imloul said.
Parallels may be drawn between the immigrant children of France and Palestinian youth revolting against Israeli occupation. Those parents, too, feel their control over their children is receding.
But here, parents also complain that schools are a breeding ground for crime. They say educational standards are poor because inexperienced teachers usually are assigned to schools in poor areas.
With no close supervision -- from parents or school -- many youths end up in the streets.
What's striking, said Marie-Noelle Botte, who works with children and mothers in Clichy-Sous-Bois, is that the youths jailed for the riots show no remorse. "Generally, they don't feel guilty," she said, "For them, it's like stealing sweets from a shop."
Unemployed parents are not a good role model, Botte said.
Asked why she had not learned French after 27 years in France, Fatna shrugged. "I don't go out, I'm home all the time. I don't meet anyone."

This story appeared on Page A2 of The Standard-Times on November 12, 2005.
 
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