BOBIGNY, France - French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has defended his tough anti-crime policies after a fourth night of riots in a Paris suburb in which tear gas was fired into a mosque during evening prayers.
Sarkozy vowed to investigate the tear gas incident and repeated his "zero tolerance" policy towards violence that began when two teenagers were electrocuted to death after clambering into a power sub-station while apparently fleeing police.
Overnight youths hurled rocks and set fire to cars in the northeastern Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of the French capital, where many immigrants and poor families live in high-rise housing estates notorious for youth violence.
French television said six police officers were hurt and 11 people arrested in the violence.
"I want these people to be able to live in peace." Sarkozy told reporters as he mingled with local residents outside the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture in Bobigny, which oversees Clichy-sous-Bois.
"For 30 years the situation has been getting worse in a number of neighbourhoods," he said, honing his theme of the need for a break with past policies that underpins his strategy for 2007 presidential elections.
"I am perfectly aware that it is not in three days or in three months that we will make up for 30 years," he added, pledging to crack down on gangs and drug dealers.
Sarkozy, who made his name by cutting crime figures during a first stint as interior minister from 2002 to 2004, later discussed the unrest with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a potential rival in the 2007 race.
Opposition Socialists said the disturbances were proof Sarkozy's tough policies were failing.
"We need to act at the same time on prevention, repression, education, housing, jobs ... and not play the cowboy," former prime minister Laurent Fabius, who also has presidential ambitions, told Europe 1 radio.
Siyakah Traore, whose brother died in the sub-station four days ago, called for an end to the disturbances.
"We want calm, we want justice to be done, we want the riot police to leave and to be received by Mr Villepin," he told reporters. Sarkozy had offered to meet the dead youths' parents but it was unclear if the meeting would take place, aides said.
The Clichy riots were the latest in a series of incidents in the northeastern suburbs.
In June, an 11-year-old boy was killed by a stray bullet in the northern area of La Courneuve. The eastern suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine made headlines in 2002 when a 17-year-old girl was set alight by an 18-year-old boy.
Sarkozy, who returned as interior minister in late May, launched a new crime offensive this month, ordering specially trained police to tackle 25 problem neighbourhoods.
"Sarkozy is confusing real firmness with firmness for the television cameras," Socialist spokesman Julien Dray said in comments to be published in Tuesday's Le Parisien.
Sarkozy's shoot-from-the-lip style has outraged the opposition and irritated some cabinet ministers. Equal opportunities minister Azouz Begag has implicitly criticised Sarkozy's recent reference to suburban youths as "riff-raff".
The sociologist acknowledged in Tuesday's Le Parisien he had not been forceful enough when dealing with fellow ministers, but said he would work with Sarkozy to improve matters.
"I won't hide from you that the situation is very tense. It is urgent that we sent signals to our fellow citizens in the housing estates that we understand their problems," he said.