France faces 'moment of truth,'

Government declares state of emergency, reaches out to angry youths.

france riots 298.88 (photo credit: )
france riots 298.88
(photo credit: )
A government-declared 12-day state of emergency was poised to go into effect in riot-torn France at midnight Tuesday, paving the way for curfews in cities and towns crying out for a return to order after 12 nights of the country's worst civil unrest in decades. But as President Jacques Chirac introduced the extraordinary security measures on Tuesday, the nation's police chief said violence was showing signs of abating and the prime minister reached out to heavily immigrant suburbs where the rioting began. New arson attacks and clashes broke out Tuesday night. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, tacitly acknowledging that France has failed to live up to its egalitarian ideals, said discrimination was a "daily and repeated" reality in tough suburbs, feeding the frustration of youths made to feel that they don't belong in France. "We must be lucid: the republic is at a moment of truth," Villepin said at an impassioned parliamentary debate Tuesday where lawmakers also spoke frankly about France's failings. "The effectiveness of our integration model is in question," the prime minister said. He called the riots "a warning" and "an appeal." In the first reports of violence Tuesday night, a clash broke out between youths who threw gasoline bombs and police who retaliated with tear gas in the southern city of Toulouse, where Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was visiting, LCI television said. Police did not immediately return calls seeking confirmation. In Nice, a man was in serious condition after being hit by a barbell that fell from a high-rise building in a neighborhood where there had been rioting in recent days, a local official said. Authorities were investigating whether it was an accident or an attack. Images of French teenagers from north and west African immigrant families pelting riot police with stones and gasoline bombs - reminiscent of Palestinian youths attacking Israeli patrols - have struck chords in the Muslim world. Egyptian daily Al-Massaie referred to the riots as "the intifada of the poor." Arabic satellite networks have given lead coverage to the mayhem, with regular live reports. Newspapers follow the story on inside pages, calling it a "nightmare" and a "war of the suburbs." French regional officials were preparing to use the powers flowing from Chirac's state-of-emergency decree to impose curfews. The Interior Ministry said there was no centralized list of towns and cities that would be affected, because curfew measures were being drawn up locally. The northern French city of Amiens and the central city of Orleans said they planned curfews for minors under age 16, who must be accompanied by adults at night. Amiens also planned to forbid the sale of gasoline in cans to minors. Curfew violators face up to two months in jail and a $4,400 fine, the Justice Ministry said. Minors face one month in jail. Police - with 8,000 officers deployed and 1,500 reservists called up as reinforcements - are expected to enforce curfews. The army has not been called in. "France is wounded. It does not recognize itself in these devastated streets and neighborhoods, in this outburst of hatred and of violence that vandalizes and kills," Villepin said. "The return to order is the absolute priority." The 50-year-old state-of-emergency law that Chirac invoked was drawn up to quell unrest in Algeria during its war of independence from France, and was last used in December 1984 by the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand against rioting in the French Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia. That Chirac took such steps was a measure both of the gravity of crisis that has spread to hundreds of French towns and cities and of his sorely tested government's determination to restore control. The violence started Oct. 27 as a localized riot in a northeast Paris suburb angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers, of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent, electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation. It has grown into a nationwide insurrection by disillusioned suburban youths, many of them French-born children of immigrants from France's former territories like Algeria. France's suburbs have long been neglected, and their youth complain of a lack of jobs and widespread discrimination. In his speech to parliament, Villepin said jobseekers with foreign-sounding names did not get equal consideration with those who had traditional French-sounding names when presenting CVs. The French system, said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a lawmaker from Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of northeast Paris where the unrest started, is "running out of steam." Under the emergency decree, officials can put troublemakers under house arrest, ban or limit the movement of people and vehicles, confiscate weapons and close public spaces where gangs gather, Villepin told parliament. But he said that restoring order "will take time." The main opposition Socialists, through their parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault, said they did not oppose the use of curfews, but warned that curfews should not be used to hide suburban "misery" or become "a new mark of segregation." The prime minister said riot police faced "determined individuals, structured gangs, organized criminality." Police say rioters have been using mobile phone text messages and the Internet to organize arson attacks. Police on Monday arrested two teenage bloggers accused of having used the Internet to incite other youths to riot. French historians say the rioting is more widespread and more destructive in material terms than the May riots of 1968, when university students erected barricades in Paris' Latin Quarter and across France, throwing paving stones at police. That unrest, a turning point in modern France, led to a general strike by 10 million workers and forced President Gen. Charles de Gaulle to dissolve parliament and fire Premier Georges Pompidou. Vandals burned 1,173 cars overnight Monday-Tuesday, down from 1,408 vehicles the previous night, police said. Police made 330 arrests, down 395 the night before. "The intensity of this violence is on the way down," National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said, adding that there were fewer attacks on public buildings and direct clashes between youths and police. He said rioting was reported in 226 towns across France, compared to nearly 300 the night before. The violence claimed its first victim Monday, with the death of a 61-year-old man beaten into a coma last week. Foreign governments have warned tourists to be careful in France. Apparent copycat attacks have spread to Belgium and Germany, where cars were burned. France is using fast-track trials to punish rioters, worrying some human rights campaigners.