French govt 'will not give in' to rioting

France’s government faced mounting pressure on Thursday after suburban rioters fired at police and firefighters, hurled rocks at trains and torched buses and car dealerships.

Rioters ignored appeals for calm by French President Jacques Chirac, whose government worked feverishly to fend off criticism that it has ignored problems in Parisian suburbs mostly populated by first- and second-generation North African and Muslim immigrants.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called a series of emergency meetings with Cabinet ministers throughout the day and said the government “will not give in” to violence in France’s troubled suburbs.

“Order and justice will be the final word in our country,” Villepin said. “The return to calm and the restoration of public order are the priority—our absolute priority.”

The riots, sparked last Thursday by the accidental deaths of two teenagers in the north-eastern suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, spread on Wednesday night to at least 20 Paris-region towns, said Jean-Francois Cordet, the top government official for the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris where the violence has been concentrated.

Four shots were fired at riot police and firefighters, without causing injuries, Cordet said.

Nine people were injured in Seine-Saint-Denis and 315 cars were torched across the Paris area where acts of violence ranged from stone-throwing to torching vehicles, officials said.

In the north-eastern suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, gangs of youths set fire to Renault car dealership and incinerated at least a dozen cars, a supermarket and a local gymnasium.

Traffic was halted on Thursday morning on a suburban commuter line that links Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport after stone-throwing rioters attacked two trains overnight at the Le Blanc-Mesnil station. They forced a conductor off one train and broke windows, the SNCF rail authority said.
A female passenger was lightly injured by broken glass.

The unrest has highlighted the division between France’s big cities and their poor suburbs. Frustrations have been simmering in housing projects that dominate the area, which is marked by high unemployment, crime and poverty.

The violence has also cast doubt on the success of France’s model of seeking to integrate its large immigrant community—its Muslim population, at an estimated five million, is Western Europe’s largest—by playing down differences between ethnic groups. But rather than be embraced as full and equal citizens, immigrants and their French-born children often complain of police harassment and of being refused jobs, housing and opportunities.

Opposition groups accused the government of letting the situation spiral out of control, either by failing to act quickly enough or letting in too many immigrants over the years.

“We see that the situation in certain neighbourhoods is not getting better at all, but degenerating,” Socialist Party president Jean-Marc Ayrault told LCI television, and said Chirac’s conservatives “did not know how to take control”.

Right-wing French lawmaker Philippe de Villiers, who has said he wants to “stop the Islamisation of France”, told RTL radio that the problem stemmed from the “failure of a policy of massive and uncontrolled immigration”.

Minister of Social Cohesion Jean-Louis Borloo said the government has to react “firmly” but added that France must also acknowledge its failure to have dealt with anger simmering in poor suburbs for decades.

“We cannot hide the truth: that for 30 years we have not done enough,” he told France-2 television.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writer Cecile Brisson contributed to this report from Bobigny, France

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