French riots spiral out of control

Riots in France’s poor city suburbs appeared to be spiralling out of control on Monday after the worst night of violence to date, in which more than 30 police were injured and 1 400 cars burned across the country.

“The shockwave has spread from Paris to the provinces,” said Michel Gaudin, Director General of the national police, at a press conference in the capital.

For an 11th night in a row, youths predominantly from France’s large Arab-Muslim minority rampaged through their out-of-town neighbourhoods, setting fire to vehicles, businesses and public buildings and attacking police with stones and other projectiles.

Police figures showed that 1 408 vehicles were destroyed overnight—more than the previous record of 1 300 on Saturday—and 395 people arrested. Most of the cars—nearly 1 000—were targeted in towns and cities outside Paris, reflecting the way the violence has spread from its original flashpoint.

In addition, 36 police officers were injured overnight—the worst figure to date—amid signs that rioters were deliberately seeking out clashes with the security forces.

At Grigny in the southern Paris suburbs, two police officers were hospitalised after being hit by gun shots in what colleagues said was an ambush set by a gang of youths.

“Their aim is to get us. It is to kill policemen,” an officer who witnessed the incident told Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited the officers’ headquarters overnight.

Spreading violence

The violence—which was sparked on October 27 by the accidental deaths of two teenagers in an electrical substation in a northern Paris suburb—has fanned across the country in a nightly ritual of copycat attacks by disaffected youths complaining of economic misery and social discrimination.

Few regions of the country have been spared, with riots on Sunday night in the southern towns of Toulouse, Toulon and Draguignan, Strasbourg in the east and Nantes in the west.
Tourist centres such as the Loire valley town of Blois and Quimper in Brittany were also hit.

Even the small village of Villedieu-du-Temple, 12km from the southern town of Montauban, saw six postal vehicles destroyed.

Among the targets of the rioters were churches, nursery and primary schools, town halls and police stations as well as warehouses, car dealerships and a film studio at Asnieres outside Paris. In the Normandy city of Rouen, rioters used a car as a battering ram against a police station.

Overall, more than 5 000 cars have been burned and more than 1 000 people arrested since the beginning of the trouble, which is the worst to hit France since the May student uprising in 1968.

Cabinet meeting

President Jacques Chirac intervened personally for the first time since the start of the unrest, summoning an inner Cabinet meeting on Sunday evening and afterwards declaring that “the absolute priority is the reestabishment of security and public order”.

“The last word must belong to the law. Those who want to sow violence or fear must be caught, judged and punished,” the 72-year-old president said.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin promised reinforcements for police and said fast-track justice procedures will be set up to cope with the growing number of arrests.

“We will not accept any lawless zone,” he said.

Their remarks showed the government’s determination to represent a united front, despite initial reservations over the hard line taken by Sarkozy, who has been much criticised by protesters and the political left for his uncompromising language.

A leading Muslim group—the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF)—issued a fatwa or formal instruction urging Muslims not to take part in acts of violence.

“It is strictly forbidden for any Muslim ... to take part in any action that strikes blindly at private or public property or that could threaten the lives of others,” the UOIF said.

The group—which espouses a radical interpretation of Islam close to the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood—is the largest component of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, the official representative body for Islam in France that was set up by Sarkozy two years ago.

Australia and Japan on Monday joined Britain, Canada, Russia and the United States in issuing public advisories that recommended that tourists to France exercise caution because of the violence.—AFP

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