Suburban unrest spreads in France

Unrest spread across troubled suburbs around Paris in a sixth night of violence as police clashed with angry youths and scores of vehicles were torched in at least nine towns, officials said on Wednesday.

Police in riot gear fired rubber bullets at advancing gangs of youths in Aulnay-sous-Bois — one of the worst-hit suburbs — where 15 cars were burned on Tuesday night, officials said. Youths lobbed Molotov cocktails at an annex to the town hall and threw stones at the firehouse. It was not immediately clear whether the clashes led to any injuries.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told Europe-1 radio that police detained 34 people overnight.

Sarkozy — blamed by many for fanning the violence with tough talk and harsh tactics — defended his approach and vowed to restore calm. The minister recently called the rioters ”scum” and has vowed to ”clean out” Paris’s troubled suburbs.

”I speak with real words,” Sarkozy told Wednesday’s Le Parisien newspaper. ”When you fire real bullets at police, you’re not a ‘youth,’ you’re a thug.”

No trouble was immediately reported in Clichy-sous-Bois, where rioting began on Thursday after the accidental deaths of two teenagers electrocuted in a power substation where they hid to escape police.

A third was injured. Officials have said police were not pursuing the boys, aged 15 and 17.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday evening met the parents of the three families, promising a full investigation of the deaths and insisting on ”the need to restore calm”, the prime minister’s office said.

In a bid to open a dialogue, Sarkozy met with victims’ relatives, other youths, a police representative and officials from Clichy-sous-Bois. But the unrest spread even as they met.

Division and frustration

The unrest highlighted the division between France’s big cities and their poor suburbs, where anger and despair thrive. The riots have also made clear the frustrations simmering in poor housing projects to the north and north-east of the capital, heavily populated by North African Muslim immigrants and marked by soaring unemployment.

In the north-eastern suburb of Bondy, 14 cars were burned and four people arrested for throwing stones at police, the prefecture said. A fire engulfed a carpet store, but it was not immediately clear whether the blaze was linked to the suburban unrest.

Officials gave an initial count of 69 vehicles torched in nine suburbs across the Seine-Saint-Denis region that arcs around Paris on the north and north-east.

An Associated Press Television News team witnessed confrontations between about 20 police and 40 youths in Aulnay-sous-Bois, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Officials said that ”small, very mobile gangs” were harassing police and setting fire to garbage cans and vehicles throughout the region.

France-Info radio said about 150 blazes were reported in garbage bins, cars and buildings across Seine-Saint-Denis, an area of soaring unemployment, delinquency and other urban ills.

Mounting tension

Tension had mounted throughout Tuesday after young men torched cars, garbage bins and even a primary school 24 hours earlier.

Scores of cars were reported burned on Monday night in Clichy-sous-Bois, and 13 people were jailed.

Youths set two rooms of a primary school in Sevran on fire on Monday along with several cars, mayor Stephane Gatignon said in a statement.

A tear-gas grenade that landed in the Clichy-sous-Bois mosque on Sunday night fed anger, along with arrests. It was unclear who fired the tear gas.

Sarkozy, a law-and-order interior minister, said social aid to the suburbs provided over the years had been a failed tactic.

”We often accepted the unacceptable,” he told Le Parisien. ”The reigning order is too often the order of gangs, drugs, traffickers. The neighbourhoods are waiting for firmness but also justice” and jobs.

Even within the conservative government, there were critics of Sarkozy’s tough language.

Equal Opportunities Minister Azouz Begag, in an interview on Tuesday in the daily Liberation, said he ”contests this method of becoming submerged by imprecise, warlike semantics”.

Violence first visited French suburbs in 1981, in the Lyon area. For three decades, successive governments have vainly injected funds but failed to cure suburban ills. — Sapa-AP

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