If asked five weeks ago to look at a map of Europe and show where they would least expect an outbreak of violent crime and ethnic rioting, many people would have pointed to the French Alps.
The mountains, valleys and fresh air seemed worlds apart from a France caught in perpetual struggle with its volatile mixture of large-scale immigration, collapse of respect for authority and deep-seated feelings of resentment and exclusion among inhabitants of fortress-like tower blocks. But here in mid-July, in the Grenoble suburb of Villeneuve, the bloody aftermath of a supermarket hold-up led to three nights of disturbances as severe as anything seen in the tough Parisian banlieues since the countrywide riots of five years ago.
Calm has returned but too late to stop the city, capital of the elegant, touristic Alpine region, becoming the focus of the social problems confronting the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his centre-right government. As France prepares for the traditional September rentrée, when political, business and academic life resumes after the summer break, there is acute concern about lawlessness on the suburban estates, with their concentrations of immigrant families, predominantly Muslim and originating in north and sub-Saharan Africa.
Unemployment is rife. It is not uncommon to meet bright young graduates with impressive diplomas but scant hope of securing employment reflecting their abilities, or in some cases any work at all. And disaffection is widespread, aggravated by anger at the government's proposal to outlaw the wearing of face-covering veils in public places, a measure that does not specify Muslim women but whose target is perfectly well understood.
There is no direct link between urban violence and impassioned debate on whether women should be free to wear the clothing of their choice. The burqa issue alone would be unlikely to provoke a repetition of the riots of late 2005, when burning and looting in the ghettos of the northern outskirts of Paris spread to small and large towns from northern France to the shores of the Mediterranean. But tension between the immigrant population and the apparatus of state has grown rather than diminished in the intervening years. The realisation has sunk in that if mistrust and alienation can cause violence to erupt in Grenoble, nowhere can be considered immune.
In the early hours of July 16, the Casino store at Uriage-les-Bains, east of Grenoble, became the latest in a series of supermarkets to be targeted by robbers. Two men described as heavily armed escaped with up to ?40,000 (Dh189,000) but were quickly pursued by police, the chase leading to Villeneuve. One robber got away; the other, Karim Boudouda, a French Algerian Muslim aged 27, was killed. In the official version, he died in an exchange of gunfire. A policeman was wounded.
For the next three nights, youths went on the rampage. Cars and shops were set on fire. Police were fired upon and allegedly taunted with threats that they and "anyone European" would be shot to avenge Boudouda's death. Why would bands of young people rise up against the police, and inflict serious damage on their own neighbourhood, over the death of an habitual criminal, readily acknowledged to have been involved in the robbery?
The answer lies, in part, in the contempt in which so many of them hold all symbols of authority. There is also suspicion, however groundless this may turn out to be, that Boudouda's death smacked of summary execution, with the officer or officers concerned safe from any threat of prosecution. Some residents have condemned both the violence of rioters and a "lack of professionalism" in the severity of the police response, both of which were said to have "traumatised" residents, whatever their ethnic origins.
"The cops, when you need them, are never there, zero," a woman reportedly called out during the disturbances. "And when you don't need them, they come. All this is because of them." Khaled Satour, an Algerian-born teacher who lives next door to Boudouda's mother, wrote on his blog, reproduced at Le Dazibao, a citizens' news site: "I expect nothing from the inquiry, knowing the government's security policy to give immunity to police officers. In the absence of such minimal respect for procedure, I have less reason to give more credence to the official account of legitimate self-defence than to the theory I hear in Villeneuve, just as unverifiable, that he was deliberately shot and, in the most popular version, finished off on the ground."
Three weeks after writing those words, Mr Satour says nothing has happened to change his mind. It is important, he argues, to take account of the feelings of the immigrant population on a range of issues: disadvantages in education, jobs and housing, "unjust, even racist" policing and the striking frequency of deaths among young Arabs and Africans during police operations or in custody. Less than 30 years ago, young people of north African parentage reacted to the discrimination they suffered in their daily lives by staging the "march of the Beurs" from Marseille to Paris in support of social justice and greater integration. Today, large numbers of young people born or having roots in France's former African colonies are driven by what they see as institutional marginalisation into regarding themselves as separate from French society.
"Discrimination in employment and housing is both a feeling and a harsh reality," said Rachid Nekkaz, who rose from unpromising suburban Paris origins as the son of Algerian immigrants to become a successful businessman. "Their rate of unemployment is 20 per cent while the average rate is 10 per cent. Thus, French Arabs and Africans find it twice as difficult to find a job. "In housing, when you are African, it is extremely tough to get an apartment in the private rental market. Some 85 per cent of people who contact me to find a small studio or apartment are from African, French Caribbean or Arab backgrounds. Almost always, their demands for flats have been rejected by the private owners who are either afraid or unwilling to deal with them."
In 2007, Mr Nekkaz tried unsuccessfully to stand, on a platform of Respect for the Banlieues, in the presidential elections won by Mr Sarkozy. He is currently raising ?1 million (Dh4.7m) for a fund to pay the fines of any woman charged with wearing the head-to-toe burqa. "The ban is part of an overall strategy of President Sarkozy to reduce the visible presence of Islam in France," he said. "The veil was originally banned from the school, now it is to be the burqa in the street. Tomorrow it will surely be minarets banned in France as in Switzerland. And after tomorrow - who can imagine what great idea will come from the genius of President Sarkozy?"
Mr Nekkaz sees fundamental reasons for worsening community relations: the government's abandonment of its "hope for the banlieues" programme, the sharp rise in unemployment and high-profile police operations against alleged criminals from Muslim estates. The response from Mr Sarkozy and his ministers has been uncompromising. Visiting Grenoble after the events of Villeneuve, the president talked about "the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently controlled immigration, which have ended in the failure of integration".
Draft amendments to the constitution, to go before parliament next month, could strip offenders of French citizenship if they committed serious crimes, including any threat to the life of a police officer, within 10 years of naturalisation. The proposed measures are extraordinary and left-wing opponents accuse the president of using immigrants - and the Romanian and Bulgarian travelling people whose deportations began this week after illegal camps were broken up - as scapegoats to shore up his own declining popularity in the midst of France's economic woes and protracted financial scandals.
But one minister, Christian Estrosi, pointed out that while there was no problem with people of immigrant origin who properly fulfilled their social obligations, the signal was clear to those outside the law: "You've got to choose between French and being a criminal." Mr Nekkaz contends that with their "French or lawbreaker" mantra, ministers have crossed a dangerous line. Most depressingly of all, he is seriously concerned about the prospect of a return to nationwide disorder. "Yes, unfortunately, we run the risk of new tensions similar to 2005," he said. "Perhaps even more serious. The government is playing with fire and we could see the suburbs burning again. Is this what the president thinks it will take for him to be re-elected in 2012?"