Uneasy calm returns to French cities

The French government was to meet on Monday on whether to extend a state of emergency in a number of places to tackle more than two weeks of urban unrest as the number of attacks was dropping nationwide.

An overnight curfew was still in force in 40 municipalities and authorities in the southeastern city of Lyon banned public gatherings in order to head off a repeat of clashes in the historic centre.

Police said no incident was reported in France’s third-largest city Sunday afternoon but 15 cars were set ablaze during the day and three people who were carrying petrol were detained for questioning.

By 4am (3am GMT) on Monday 271 vehicles had gone up in flames and 112 people had been detained for questioning across France, according to figures released by the police, compared to 315 torched vehicles and 161 arrests the previous night.

Five police officers were wounded during the 18th night of unrest, against two overnight on Saturday.

Since the start of the unrest 2 764 arrests have been made and 375 people have been sent to prison.

The European Union pledged to release €50-million ($58 million) for urban programmes to improve conditions in France’s riot-hit areas, the EU executive president Jose Manuel Barroso said before a meeting with French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin late on Sunday.

National police chief Michel Gaudin said there was “a major easing-off”.

“Things should begin to get rapidly back to normal,” he added.

According to figures compiled before the riots by the police intelligence service RG, about 28 000 cars were burned in the first 10 months of the year—making an average of 650 a week, most of which were destroyed at weekends.

The centre of Paris remained calm after the authorities banned public meetings there on Saturday, fearing an influx of youth gangs from the suburbs. In the end there was no sign of trouble, and the capital’s outskirts were also relatively quiet.

A government official also spoke of cautious optimism.

“We were expecting a hot night, but it was not as busy as he feared. We feared problems in Paris but there were none.
The slowdown is now established, and things should be easier to control,” the senior official said.

The assembly bans in Paris and Lyon were imposed under emergency legislation activated by the government of President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday in response to the worst outbreak of urban violence in France since the student uprising of May 1968.

The same emergency law was used to impose overnight curfews in seven regions Saturday night, including Lyon, Nice on the Riviera and Rouen in Normandy. Under the orders all unaccompanied children under 16 are banned from leaving their homes after 10pm (9pm GMT).

The violence in France’s dilapidated out-of-town tenement estates was sparked by the accidental deaths of two teenagers who hid in an electricity sub-station in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois after an encounter with police.

More than 8 000 cars have been burned since and numerous businesses and public buildings gutted by gangs of youths who are mainly from the country’s Arab and black minorities.

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in an interview on the private radio station RTL1 on Sunday blamed the rioting on “uncontrolled immigration from the Third World” and, while endorsing the use of curfews, he described the government response as insufficient.

Le Pen (77) was to speak at a rally of France’s National Front party in central Paris on Monday evening. - AFP

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