France has been stunned by fierce outbreaks of violence involving distinct ethnic groups and fuelled by drug-dealing, turf wars and racial tension.
The famous mustard-producing town of Dijon in eastern France provided the unlikely setting for the most recent scenes of disorder as up to 200 Chechens gathered from around the country, even travelling from Belgium and Germany, to carry out what police called “punitive missions” in the Arab-dominated district of Gresilles.
The initial spark for rioting was an earlier attack on a young Chechen, blamed by some on drug dealers from Gresilles, that led to social media calls for exiles to meet and seek revenge in a city that was historically a formidable centre of wealth and power under the dukes of Burgundy and remains the administrative capital of the region.
Reports of the original incident are confused. Early accounts referred to a 16-year-old boy of Chechen origin being assaulted in a shisha cafe. But “Kelimkhan”, a Chechen immigrant, has given media interviews claiming his 19-year-old son was beaten up after receiving a late-night call from an Albanian friend who need his help to accompany him to hospital.
On arrival, he and his friend were attacked by men armed with revolvers and iron clubs who drew up in two cars according to Kelimkhan, who called for calm, saying he wanted justice but no violence. He denied his son was involved in drugs.
During successive nights of rioting from Friday, June 12 to last Sunday, in the city centre as well as Gresilles, hooded men brandishing iron clubs and baseball bats, and in some cases guns, looked for suitable targets. Shots were fired from a mixture of real and imitation weapons, mostly in the air but also at security cameras. On Monday night, a group of Maghrebin men, some also armed, staged their own show of strength in defence of their district.
Amid claims that the police did too little to anticipate or tackle the earliest trouble, vehicles and dustbins were set on fire, the Maghrebin owner of a pizzeria was shot and wounded, a shisha bar was trashed and a car was driven at speed towards a crowd. The vehicle hit no one before crashing but the driver and his passenger were injured when it was surrounded by angry bat-wielding mob. Responsibility for the different acts of violence is still in dispute.
Police reinforcements, including officers from elite specialist intervention units, eventually restored some calm and arrests have been made in raids on the homes of Chechens in Dijon and several other French towns. Addresses in the Gresilles and Chenove areas of Dijon have also been searched for evidence of drugs and weapons.
Prosecutors in Dijon said an investigation had been launched to find those responsible for attempted murder by an organised gang, mob violence, criminal association and "participation in an armed group".
The events were condemned by politicians of all sides, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen attempting to blame lax French policies on immigration and race.
“We no longer know if we are in the Wild West or in Baghdad," she said. With an eye on French municipal elections due on June 28, she condemned Dijon’s socialist mayor, Francois Rebsamen, for his commitment to multiculturalism and lavish aid for the Gresilles district.
She added: "The whole political class of right and left leaves me struggling with the monstrous reality produced in France by 30 years of ideological errors."
Mr Rebsamen, in turn, suggested the police were at fault for “not seeing the confrontation between gangs coming”. He also said Ms Le Pen had nothing to offer Dijon and would be “unwelcome” there.
In a move that will be seen as condoning mob violence, Chechnya’s head of state Ramzan Kadyrov said in a social media message that he believed Chechens has been let down by French authorities and that their response was “correct”.
Chechens have been fleeing conflict and Russian repression in their own state since the 1990s. They have also settled in Paris and elsewhere in France, notably Nice, where the conservative mayor, Christian Estrosi, talked this week of his city and Dijon being just the latest in France to suffer the impact of rival groups battling to control drug trafficking.
In a detailed report of violence last weekend in eastern suburbs of Nice, the Nice-Matin newspaper described Arabs and African cannabis gangs carving up territory between them in a pact some residents call "Yalta for dealers", a criminal refinement of the accord between the US, Russia and Britain on reorganising German and eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.
The agreement supposedly broke down in Nice last year after Chechen criminals, more interested in distributing heroin and cocaine than cannabis, moved in. Gangsters from crime-infested suburbs of Paris and Toulouse are also said to have appeared in the city to stake claims to trafficking rights.
Violence in the Liserons district of Nice, not directly related to what happened over the same weekend in Dijon, saw three people wounded by gunfire.
Far from blaming the police for failing to act, one resident told Nice-Matin: "What do you want them to do? These gangs are better armed with weapons and means of communication and are unscrupulous … security cameras don't last long, sometimes only a few hours."
Meanwhile, officials have warned that the violence could lead to expulsions. “If foreigners are involved in public order disturbances, we will systematically examine, in accordance with administrative and, where appropriate, judicial procedures, the possibility of deporting them," the Ministry of Interior said.