Nearly 900 vehicles torched as French rioting rages on

Nearly 900 vehicles were torched and 250-plus people arrested on Saturday as French police desperately battled the country’s worst rioting for decades, which has now raged for nine consecutive nights.

Again, the bulk of the violence hit deprived suburbs with large immigrant populations on the fringes of Paris, although rioting again spread to several cities elsewhere in France, following a pattern seen in recent nights.

With authorities seemingly powerless to stem the tide of violence despite the mobilisation of hundreds of riot police, gangs of youths set cars on fire around Paris, especially in the northern suburbs where the trouble began.

A hundred people were evacuated overnight from two apartment blocks in one northern suburb after an arson attack set dozens of cars alight in an underground garage.

Two textile warehouses and a car showroom were also torched to the northeast of the city.

A total of 253 people were detained for questioning, some of them minors caught with fire-bombs, police said.

Paris prosecutor general Yves Bot said that 897 vehicles had been burnt overnight Friday, including 656 in the Paris region.

Questioned on Europe 1 radio, Bot spoke of “organised violence” but did not say by whom.

“If I could give an exact answer, those people would already be under arrest,” he said. “But we can see organised actions, a strategy.”

Bot said that weblogs were asking other French cities to join the rioting in the Paris region.

Incidents on a smaller scale were reported in the southern cities of Toulouse and Nice, and in Lille and Rennes to the north.

The increased arrests were in line with priorities laid down for police by hardline Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

However, the intensity of clashes with police was less than on many nights since the violence began on October 27, sparked by the electrocution of two youths in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois after they hid from police in an electrical relay station.

Rather than attack police, many youths appeared to opt instead to run away after lighting fires, although some bottles, stones and petrol bombs were thrown.

The renewed violence began just hours after Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin held a crisis meeting with Sarkozy to discuss a response to the riots, France’s worst civil unrest since the 1968 student revolts.

Sarkozy, whose tough law and order policies some have blamed for worsening the trouble, later made a surprise visit to a police command centre west of Paris, telling officers: “Arrests — that’s the key.”

He urged them to get more information on those causing the trouble “so we can better understand how they’re organised, because they are organised”.

Sarkozy, who is aiming at a presidential bid in 2007, has pledged to clean up the crime-ridden streets of France’s deprived suburban housing projects “with a power-hose”, controversially referring to trouble-makers as “rabble”.

The seemingly uncontainable violence has proved deeply embarrassing to the government, focusing global attention on the often terrible conditions in deprived suburbs, where largely immigrant populations complain of dismal economic prospects, rampant discrimination and heavy-handed policing.

French newspapers despaired on Saturday at the continued scenes of chaos.

“Are the police overwhelmed?” France Soir asked, referring to what it termed the “genuine guerrilla warfare” faced by officers.

Popular daily Le Parisien said many of those arrested were previously known to police, calling the youths burning cars “a mix of delinquents, recidivists and ‘part time’ rioters”.

In contrast, Liberation, said the rioters were inspired by a combination of anger, urban deprivation, unemployment, policing and “their hatred of Sarkozy”. – AFP

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Marc Burleigh
Marc Burleigh
AFP journalist - Based in Paris. Previously: Central America, Tehran, São Paulo, London, Sydney.

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