France on weekend riot alert

France was on alert on Friday for a possible upsurge of violence as the country headed into a long holiday weekend, two weeks after rioting first broke out in a run-down suburb of Paris.

Exceptional security measures were taken for Armistice Day ceremonies attended by President Jacques Chirac in the capital, which passed off without incident under the watch of about 3 000 police officers.

About 12 000 security officers are to remain mobilised around the country for the rest of the weekend amid fears of an upswing in arson attacks.

Levels of violence in poor city suburbs remained stable overnight, with 463 cars torched by rioters and 201 people arrested nationwide, figures almost identical to the previous night, national police said.

There were few clashes between youth gangs and police, with the most serious incidents reported in the eastern city of Lyon, where police said eight officers were injured.

France has been rocked by two weeks of car burnings, arson attacks and rioting carried out mostly by young Arab and black residents of poor suburban high-rise estates, who complain of economic misery and racial discrimination.

The unrest, France’s worst since the May 1968 student uprising, has subsided considerably since its peak on Sunday, when more than 1 400 cars were torched.

In neighbouring Belgium, which had feared a spillover of violence, police reported only six car burnings and other minor incidents.

On Wednesday, a state of emergency was declared by the French government and curfews introduced in more than 30 towns and cities.

Test of measures

This weekend is seen as a key test of the government measures—curfew powers for the worst-hit areas coupled with a package of social assistance for the run-down suburbs concerned—brought in to tackle the violence.

Shell-shocked by the two weeks of riots, authorities deployed heavy security for ceremonies on the capital’s Champs-Elysees avenue, marking the 87th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Chirac laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, in tribute to the more than 1,3-million Frenchmen who were killed during the 1914-1918 war.

Police also stepped up surveillance on suburban transport lines into Paris amid concerns that youths behind the unrest in out-of-town estates could be planning to disrupt the event.

Messages on internet chat rooms and cellphones have been calling for rioters to descend on the capital over the weekend, according to police.

Petrol sales in small quantities have been banned in Paris to make it harder for rioters to manufacture Molotov cocktails.

However, national police Director General Michel Gaudin said the authorities are not aware of any specific threat to the capital.

Just over the River Seine from the Armistice Day ceremonies, a peace rally was to be held near the Eiffel Tower, called by several associations from the Paris suburbs.

Calm returning

Calm has been gradually returning to French cities, although curfews for unaccompanied children under 16 remained in effect in more than 20 towns on Friday.

About 7 500 cars and dozens of buildings, including schools and businesses, have been torched since the violence began. More than 2 200 people have been arrested and more than 250 handed prison sentences.

The violence erupted on October 27 following the accidental deaths of two teenagers electrocuted while hiding from police in an electrical substation.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose tough talk on fighting crime has been blamed by some critics for helping fuel the rioting, said on television on Thursday he had no regrets about using the word “rabble” to refer to young troublemakers.

But the interior minister also said he would not permit any police excesses, after eight officers were suspended pending an investigation into an alleged assault on a young man outside Paris.

Three of the officers were released from custody on Friday, while the other five were referred before a state prosecutor.—Sapa-AFP

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