France government declares state of emergency

By Timothy Heritage

PARIS - The French government imposed rarely used emergency laws to put riot-torn areas of the country under curfew and to try to quell the worst unrest in decades, but new clashes broke out within hours.

After 12 days of violence by youths who have set fire to cars, schools and churches in protest against unemployment and racism, the government invoked a 1955 law on states of emergency drawn up to curb unrest during Algeria's war of independence.

The decree was due to go into force at midnight (12pm NZT). But youths threw firebombs at police and set fire to vehicles near the southwestern city of Toulouse, and isolated acts of violence broke out in other parts of France.

The northern city of Amiens was the first to announce a curfew, saying unaccompanied youths would not be allowed to walk the streets of the city and neighbouring districts from midnight until 6 am. Several other towns later followed suit.

"The Republic faces a moment of truth," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told the lower house of parliament.

"France is wounded. It cannot recognise itself in its streets and devastated areas, in these outbursts of hatred and violence which destroy and kill," he said.

Under the 1955 law, which can invoke a state of emergency, the government gave regional government officials known as prefects the power to impose curfews and authorise day or night-time searches without a judge's order.

Protests receded in the Paris region on Monday after shots were fired at police the previous night, but continued unabated in other towns in the early hours of the following day.

A police spokesman said 76 vehicles had been set ablaze and 57 people detained in violent incidents across France, but there had been no major clashes.

"At the moment, the beginning of this night is a bit calmer than the beginning of last night," the spokesman said.

More than 5,000 cars have been set ablaze since unrest began on October 27 and more than 1,500 people have been detained, some of them white youngsters but many of them of Arab and African origin.

Villepin said 1,500 police would be brought in to back up the 8,000 officers already deployed in areas hit by violence, widely seen as the most serious unrest since protests in 1968.

"We see these events as a warning and as an appeal," Villepin said. "A return to order is the absolute priority."

The violence, which began when two youths were accidentally electrocuted fleeing police in a Paris suburb, has undermined France's efforts to portray itself as a society based on equality for everyone.

It has also put fierce pressure on Villepin and President Jacques Chirac.

Five cars were torched in Brussels in what officials say could have been copycat attacks, but the rioting has not spread beyond France's borders.

Even so, fears of riots erupting in other countries helped push down the value of the euro, which at one point hit a two-year low against the dollar. French officials also fear investment and tourism will be hit by the violence.

Villepin promised to accelerate urban renewal programmes and vowed to help young people in poor suburbs by reducing unemployment and improving their education opportunities.

Chirac said the measures were needed to restore order but he faces criticism for saying little in public about the violence, in which one man has been killed.

"The absence of the president is remarkable in this period we're going through," said Francois Bayrou, head of a centrist party that is critical of the conservative government.

Socialist Party deputy Jean-Marc Ayrault said in parliament: "Your government, Mr. Prime Minister ... bears heavy responsibility over this outburst of passions."

Mayors of riot-hit towns welcomed the government's tougher line. A town east of Paris imposed its own curfew on minors on Monday evening and another to the west of the capital organised citizens' patrols to help the police.

But some mayors asked what another measure announced by Villepin -- extended powers for them -- would mean in practice.

"Every time they announce more powers for mayors, they cut the funds," complained Jean-Christophe Lagarde, mayor of the northeastern Paris suburb of Drancy.

- REUTERS

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