French president says restoring order is ‘absolute priority’ as urban violence intensifies
PARIS – French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday promised arrests, trials and punishment for those sowing “violence or fear” across France – as the urban unrest that has triggered attacks on vehicles, nursery schools and other targets reached central Paris.Youths set ablaze nearly 1,300 vehicles and torched businesses, schools and symbols of French authority, including post offices and provincial police stations, late Saturday and early Sunday.Police clashed with rioters south of the capital Sunday night, the 11th consecutive night of unrest. About 10 police were injured, two seriously, in Grigny in the Essonne region, the Interior Ministry said. LCI television reported that shots from a pellet gun were fired.The violence took another alarming turn Saturday night with attacks in the well-guarded French capital. Police said 35 cars were torched, most on the city’s northern and southern edges.In central Paris, gasoline bombs damaged three cars near Place de la Republique. Residents reported a loud explosion and flames.”We were very afraid,” said Annie Partouche, 55, who watched the cars burning from her apartment window. “We were afraid to leave the building.”Chirac spoke after a security meeting of his top ministers.”The law must have the last word,” Chirac said in his first public address on the violence. Those sowing “violence or fear” will be “arrested, judged and punished.”Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin promised speedy trials for rioters and extra security where it was needed.Chirac said France was determined to promote “respect for all, justice and equal opportunities.” Violence has been concentrated in poor suburbs with large immigrant populations.”But there is a precondition, a priority, I repeat,” he said. “That is the restoring of security and public order.”The French president had faced criticism from opposition politicians for not publicly speaking about France’s worst civil unrest in more than a decade. His only previous comments came through a spokesman.From an outburst of anger in suburban Paris housing projects, the violence has fanned out into a nationwide show of disdain for French authority from youths and minorities, most French-born children of Arab and black Africans angered by years of unequal opportunities.Arsonists burned 1,295 vehicles nationwide overnight Saturday-Sunday – sharply up from 897 the night before, national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said, adding that police made 349 arrests nationwide.For a second night, a helicopter equipped with spotlights and video cameras to track bands of marauding youths combed Paris suburbs and small teams of police chased rioters speeding from attack to attack in cars and on motorbikes.”What we notice is that the bands of youths are, little by little, getting more organized,” arranging attacks through cell phone text messages and learning how to make gasoline bombs, Hamon said.Police also found a gasoline bomb-making factory in a derelict building in Evry south of Paris, with more than 100 bottles ready to turned into bombs, another 50 already prepared, as well as fuel stocks and hoods for hiding rioters’ faces, senior Justice Ministry official Jean-Marie Huet told The Associated Press. Police arrested six people, all under 18.The discovery Saturday night, he said, shows that gasoline bombs “are not being improvised by kids in their bathrooms.”Police said copycat attacks are fanning the unrest but had no evidence of separate gangs coordinating. Officials said older youths, many already with police records, appear to be teaching younger teens arson techniques.Unrest extended west to Normandy and south to Nice and Cannes on the Mediterranean coast, with attacks in or around the cities of Lyon, Lille, Marseille, Strasbourg. In all, 3,300 buses, cars and other vehicles have been incinerated in 10 nights, the police spokesman said.In Evreux, 60 miles west of Paris, five police officers and three firefighters were injured in clashes with youths who destroyed at least 50 vehicles, shops and businesses, a post office and two schools, authorities said.”Rioters attacked us with baseball bats,” said Philippe Jofres, a deputy fire chief, told France-2 television. “We were attacked with pickaxes. It was war.”The rioting erupted Oct. 27 after two teenagers of north African descent were accidentally electrocuted as they hid in a power substation, apparently believing police were chasing them. Anger was then fanned anew days ago when a tear gas bomb exploded in a mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois – the northern suburb where the youths died.Government officials have held a series of meetings with Muslim religious leaders, local officials and youths from poor suburbs to try to calm the violence.—Associated Press reporters John Leicester, Jocelyn Gecker and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.