As rioting spreads, France maps tactics

Posted in Europe | 07-Nov-05 | Author: Craig Smith| Source: International Herald Tribune

France's President Jacques Chirac (R) gestures while he speaks to journalists, as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin stands near, in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace in Paris November 6, 2005.
PARIS The French government met in emergency session Sunday evening to confront youth rioting that worsened on its 10th night, sweeping close to the heart of Paris from Arab- and African-populated suburbs.

President Jacques Chirac called a special meeting of top officials, including the prime minister, Dominique de Villepin; the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy; and the ministers for defense, justice and economy.

"Today the highest priority is the return of security and public order," Chirac said after the meeting. "The last word must be from the law."

He is under political and popular pressure to stop the rioting, which has spread to towns across France and resulted in 800 police interrogations, including those of boys as young as 13.

Almost 1,300 cars were destroyed in the violence across France on Saturday night. About a dozen cars were burned in Paris, the first time the unrest entered the capital.

Three were set afire near the Place de la République, northeast of City Hall and near the historic Marais district. One firebombing left a gaping hole nearby in a charred staircase.

Although 2,300 reinforcements have been pressed into service, the police were still unable to quell the sporadic lawlessness. Seven police helicopters buzzed over the Paris region through the night Saturday, filming disturbances and directing mobile squads to incidents. Firefighters were active.

In Clichy-sous-Bois, a low-income suburb where the protests began after the accidental deaths of two teenagers, the mood was vengeful and defiant on Sunday afternoon.

"This is just the beginning," said Moussa Diallo, 22, whose parents emigrated to France from Mali. "It's not going to end until there are two policemen dead," said Diallo, who did not admit to taking part in the vandalism himself.

Rampaging youths have also attacked property in cities as far away as Toulouse and Marseille in the south, the resort towns of Cannes and Nice on the Riviera, and Strasbourg to the east. The police describe these as copycat attacks.

Because they are dispersed across the country, the attacks are harder for the police to control, yet the destruction is also decentralized. Through Sunday, close to 3,500 vehicles have been torched.

The authorities have been deeply frustrated by their inability to stop the civil unrest that appears to be the worst in France since the student revolt of 1968.

Villepin called in police officers and teachers working in deprived areas for talks. He has consulted widely but has released no details of a promised action plan for 750 tough neighborhoods.

"I'll make proposals as early as this week," the weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche quoted him as saying.

The Socialist Party leader, François Hollande, said the riots were a failure of government policy and leadership.

"I want to hear Jacques Chirac today," Hollande told reporters. "Where is the president when such serious events are taking place?"

Sarkozy visited police officers overnight in the Essonne and Val-de-Marne areas near Paris.

Chirac has been under pressure even within his own governing party. Before his brief remarks Sunday, his only comment, transmitted via a spokesman last Wednesday, was that "tempers must calm down" and a warning that an escalation would be "dangerous."

While Chirac has guarded his words, Sarkozy has inspired enmity among the young rioters by calling them "scum."

Rioting started Oct. 27 with the deaths of the two youths, of Mauritanian and Tunisian background, who were apparently fleeing from the police. During the weekend, their parents issued a statement appealing for calm.

Government authorities have so far found no way beyond appeals and more police officers to address a problem with complex social, economic and racial causes. The country has a population of about 5 million Muslims, the most in Western Europe, among its nearly 60 million people.

"Many youths have never seen their parents work and couldn't hold down a job if they got one," Claude Chevallier, the manager of a burned-out carpet depot in the rundown Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, said with asperity.

In its early days, the rioting appeared to spread spontaneously, but law enforcement officials said it was also being abetted by exhortations on the Internet. Worse, said Patrick Hamon, the national police spokesman, "what we notice is that the bands of youths are, little by little, getting more organized" and are sending attack messages by mobile phone texts.

Some sites on the Internet mourned the two teenagers; others issued insults to the police or warned that the uprisings would only give the anti-immigrant far right an opportunity.

Hamon said that in all, 3,300 buses, cars and other vehicles had been burned.

Some of the worst unrest overnight Saturday appeared to be centered on Évreux, 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, west of Paris, where at least 50 vehicles, shops and businesses and a post office and two schools were destroyed. Five police officers and three firefighters were injured in Évreux during clashes with the young rioters, Hamon said.

"This is too much, stop! Stop, do something else, but not this, not violence," a woman in Évreux appealed, according to Reuters.

The mayor of Évreux, Jean-Louis Debré, a Chirac confidant who is speaker of the lower house of Parliament, said at the scene: "A hundred people have smashed everything and strewn desolation. Well, they don't form part of our universe."

In Évry, south of Paris, a derelict building was found to contain 50 gasoline bombs, according to The Associated Press, quoting Jean-Marie Huet, a senior Justice Ministry official.

Many see the violence as a test of wills between Sarkozy and the young, mostly French-Arab rioters. Many immigrants and their children accuse Sarkozy of alienating young people by the way he has pressed a zero-tolerance anti-crime campaign, which features frequent police checks of French Arabs in poor neighborhoods.

He has ignored calls from many French Arabs to resign, and is keeping up the pressure.

During a visit to a police command center west of Paris on Saturday, according to local news reports, he told officers, "Arrests - that's the key."

The government has been embarrassed by its inability to quell the disturbances, which have called into question its integration model, which discourages recognizing ethnic, religious or cultural differences in favor of French unity.