Rival French leaders team up as riots spread

BOBIGNY, France - France's rival leaders have closed ranks to denounce rioting in the poor suburbs ringing Paris after a seventh straight night of unrest in which protesters shot at police and firemen for the first time.

Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose bitter political rivalry has overshadowed the government's reaction, teamed up in the French Senate to announce that restoring order was their "absolute priority".

They spoke after an overnight rampage that left a trail of 177 torched vehicles and many burned shops in nine areas north and east of Paris, home to North African and black African minorities that feel excluded from French society.

Villepin indirectly blamed the riots, which broke out a week ago after two teenagers of African origin were electrocuted while fleeing possible arrest, on gangs he said terrorised residents and sought to keep police out of their slums.

"I refuse to accept that organised gangs are laying down the law in certain neighbourhoods, I refuse to accept that crime networks and drug traffickers profit from this disorder, I refuse to accept that the strong intimidate the weak," he said.

"Law and order will have the last word," he told senators.

Sarkozy seconded him, saying: "There is only one political line, that set by the prime minister."

Among the buildings set ablaze were a primary school, a car dealership and a shopping centre, local officials said. Four police officers and two firefighters were wounded, including one with facial burns from a Molotov cocktail.

Prefect Jean-Francois Cordet, the government's top official in the Seine-Saint-Denis region, confirmed shots had been fired at police and fire crews in three separate incidents.

Cordet did not say what sort of weapons had been fired but media said local police recovered shotgun cartridges from the scene at La Courneuve. No one was reported wounded.

Francis Masanet, secretary general of the UNSA police trade union, said: "It's a dramatic situation. It is very serious and we fear that the events could even get worse tonight."

Sarkozy, accused by opponents of inflaming passions with his outspoken attacks on the "scum" behind the violence, said 41 people had been detained overnight and 143 in the past week.

At a shopping centre in Bobigny, northeast of the capital, residents expressed concern for the future.

"If this continues, I'll have to close. Clients are afraid. There are normally lots of people here at this time of the day," said a local cobbler who did not want to be named.

"It's because of the police that this is going on," said one black youth who did not want to be identified. "They are too violent. That's not what their job is."

The unrest in France comes despite Sarkozy's anti-crime drive following President Jacques Chirac's re-election in 2002, which was won largely on law and order issues.

His two-pronged approach - a crackdown on rioters combined with proposals to promote minorities and help fund mosques - has provoked rearguard attacks from rivals in the conservative government who accuse him of stoking extremism.

Villepin has struggled to end cabinet squabbling over how to handle disturbances that forced him to cancel a Canada trip. Moscow warned Russians against visiting Paris suburbs.

The ruling Union for a Popular Majority is split between a pro-Sarkozy camp and rivals who support Chirac and Villepin, handing the opposition Socialists a rare chance to attack the conservatives on their much-vaunted record on crime.

One police union official described the unrest as a "civil war" and urged a curfew in affected areas.

The unrest erupted first in Clichy-sous-Bois after two teenagers were electrocuted when they hid in a power substation while apparently fleeing police during a local disturbance. Officials deny police chased them.

- REUTERS

 

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