PARIS – Rioters fired at police, stoned commuter trains and torched a school, shops and hundreds of vehicles in tough immigrant suburbs Thursday, spurring French authorities to deploy 1,000 riot police on an eighth night of street violence.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin held emergency meetings aimed at avoiding a crisis that the French have feared for years: large-scale disturbances in slums where youths of African and Arab descent feel rage against society.
“Order and justice will be the final word in our country,” said Villepin, who met with top cabinet ministers and mayors from the affected communities. “The return to calm and the restoration of public order are the priority, our absolute priority.”
But after dusk fell Thursday, new outbreaks took place in half a dozen communities in the heavily industrial, immigrant-dominated area north of Paris. Five police officers were injured by projectiles and cars and buses were torched and vandalized, authorities reported.
The violence seemed less intense than the previous night, when hundreds of young men rampaged in 20 working-class communities that are a few miles north of the Paris city limits, but a world away from the capital’s glittering tourist attractions.
Police made more than 41 arrests early Thursday morning and Thursday night; four officers and two firefighters were injured in the fighting. Shots were fired at police in four separate locations late Wednesday and early Thursday, an unusual occurrence in France, but no one was hit, authorities said.
Violent disturbances are nothing new in the bleak public housing projects on the urban periphery, where intelligence officials say that the two most powerful social forces are the drug underworld and Islamic activism. Even minor incidents pitting police against youths periodically set off arson attacks on cars and assaults on symbols of the state: postal workers, firefighters, day-care centers.
But the current rioting has lasted longer than in the past and spread alarmingly, authorities say, because of accumulated frustration and tension and incitement by small-time gangsters trying to reassert control over turf. Although Islamic extremism is seen as a serious problem in some of the affected neighborhoods, there is no indication that fundamentalist leaders have encouraged the unrest, officials say.
This week’s events have been “extraordinary,” said a police intelligence chief who oversees a number of hotspots. “The global situation has been extremely difficult in the slums, even if a lot of people didn’t realize that. There has been a convergence of unfortunate events. And now you have the kingpins who are pushing kids to go out and destroy. The kingpins know we need calm to fight the underworld economy.”
The main spark for the riots came Oct. 28 in the town of Clichy-sur-Bois when two teenagers died by electrocution while hiding from police in an electrical sub-station. One youth was of Tunisian descent and the other was born in Mauritania. The two were at a soccer game when police arrived; the teenagers reportedly fled to the fatal hiding place, though investigators say police were not chasing them. Nonetheless, neighborhood youths began setting fires, destroying property and attacking police and firefighters.