French riots: Cabinet to put curfews in place

French Cabinet ministers were to meet on Tuesday to authorise curfews aimed at stopping rioters after the country’s worst civil unrest in decades raged for a 12th night.

Rioters in the southern city of Toulouse ordered passengers off a bus and then set it on fire and pelted police with gasoline bombs and rocks. Youths also torched another bus in the north-eastern Paris suburb of Stains, national police spokesperson Patrick Hamon said.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said he was to meet with his Cabinet on Tuesday to approve curfews “wherever it is necessary” under a state of emergency law.

Police reservists will be deployed as reinforcements to help end the rioting that has spread from Paris’s suburbs to nearly 300 cities and towns, Villepin said.

Outside the capital in Sevran, a junior high school was set ablaze, while in another Paris suburb, Vitry-sur-Seine, youths threw gasoline bombs at a hospital, Hamon said. No one was injured.

Rioters also attacked a police station with gasoline bombs in Chenove, in Burgundy’s Cote D’Or, Hamon said.
A nursery school in Lille-Fives, in northern France, was set on fire, regional officials said.

Fewer incidents

However, Hamon said there was a “considerable decrease” in the number of incidents overnight on Monday from the night before in the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris.

Nationwide, vandals burned 814 cars overnight compared with 1 400 vehicles a night earlier, according to national police figures. A total of 143 people were arrested, down from 395 the night before.

A 61-year-old man died on Monday of wounds sustained last week in an attack, the first fatality in the violence.

Asked on TF1 television whether the army should be brought in, Villepin said “we are not at that point”.

But “at each step, we will take the necessary measures to re-establish order very quickly throughout France,” he said. “That is our prime duty: ensuring everyone’s protection.”

The recourse to curfews followed the worst overnight violence so far on Sunday night. Foreign governments warned their citizens to be careful in France. Apparent copycat attacks also spread outside France, with five cars torched outside the main train station in Brussels, Belgium. German police were investigating the burning of five cars in Berlin.

Nationwide insurrection

The violence started on October 27 among youths in a north-eastern Paris suburb angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers, but it has grown into a nationwide insurrection by suburban youth burning and clashing with police.

The mayhem is forcing France to confront anger building for decades in neglected suburbs and among the French-born children of Arab and black African immigrants. The teenagers whose deaths sparked the rioting were of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent. They were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation, apparently thinking they were being chased.

President Jacques Chirac, in private comments more conciliatory than his warnings on Sunday that rioters would be caught and punished, acknowledged in a meeting on Monday with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga that France has not integrated immigrant youths, she said.

Chirac deplored the “ghettoisation of youths of African or North African origin,” and recognised “the incapacity of French society to fully accept them”, Vike-Freiberga said.

France “has not done everything possible for these youths, supported them so they feel understood, heard and respected”, Chirac added, noting that unemployment runs as high as 40% in some suburbs, four times the national rate, according to Vike-Freiberga.

In terms of material destruction, the unrest is France’s worst since World War II; never has rioting struck so many different French cities simultaneously, said security expert Sebastian Roche, a director of research at the state-funded National Centre for Scientific Research.

State of emergency

Villepin said curfews would be imposed under a 1955 law that allows the declaring of a state of emergency in parts or all of France. The law was passed to curb unrest in Algeria during the war that led to its independence from France.

The prime minister said 1 500 reservists would reinforce the 8 000 police and gendarmes already deployed.

“The multiplying acts of destruction, the destruction of schools and sports centres, thousands of cars set on fire—all of this is unacceptable and inexcusable,” he said. “To all in France who are watching me, who are disturbed by this, who are shocked, who want to see a return to normalcy, a return to security, the state’s response—I say it tonight forcefully—will be firm and just.”

Villepin said “organised criminal networks” are backing the violence, and youths taking part are treating it as a “game”, trying to outdo each other. He did not rule out the possibility that Islamists are involved, saying: “That element must not be neglected.”

France’s community of Muslims, at about five million, is western Europe’s largest.

Local government officials will be able to impose curfews “if they think it will be useful to permit a return to calm and ensure the protection of residents. That is our number-one responsibility”, the prime minister said.

Asked whether curfews would apply to everyone or just minors, he responded: “It applies to the entire territory.”

Nearly 600 people were in custody on Monday night, and fast-track trials were being used to punish rioters.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers John Leicester, Angela Doland and D’Arcy Doran contributed to this report in Paris

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