Chirac aims to restore order

Worst French riots in decades

in 1 day, 34 officers injured


PARIS -- As rioters spread fire and violence across France yesterday, shooting and wounding police officers, President Jacques Chirac vowed to restore calm and punish those responsible for 11 days of disturbances.

Chirac's first public comments on the unrest came after a rare meeting of his security Cabinet that underscored the gravity of the crisis. The rampage of arson and vandalism has spilled from hardscrabble housing projects into provincial towns and the capital. Rioters showed alarming new aggressiveness last night in clashes that left 34 police officers injured, including 10 hit by birdshot.

"Today, the absolute priority is restoring security and public order," Chirac said. "The republic is determined, inherently, to be stronger than those who would sow violence or fear. And they will be caught, judged and punished."

In his brief statement, Chirac also indicated that the government wanted to address the alienation, unemployment and neglect contributing to the explosion of rage in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who stood by Chirac as he spoke, is expected to outline a plan today to deal with deprivation, discrimination and youth unemployment, which is close to 50 percent in some areas. The government will also speed up a multibillion dollar overhaul of hundreds of run-down, crime-ridden housing projects, which are fixtures in the industrial peripheries of French cities and towns and are populated largely by working-class immigrant families.

"We understand also that the evolution of things requires respect for everyone, justice and equality of opportunities," Chirac said. "But there is a precondition: the restoration of security and public order."

Although French presidents tend to focus on big-picture issues such as foreign affairs, leaving details of domestic governance to their prime ministers, Chirac's silence had been criticized as the riots mushroomed into the worst urban unrest in decades. His words yesterday, and his decision to convene ministers in charge of law enforcement and defense agencies, were designed to send a message of strength.

But on the streets last night, thousands of police backed by helicopters clashed again with fast-moving, well-organized gangs of masked, hooded vandals on scooters and bikes who burned more than 442 vehicles by midnight. Police made 68 arrests.

A total of 1,300 vehicles burned overnight Saturday and early yesterday, the most since the unrest began. And the toll of 34 injured officers represented a major escalation; only seven officers had been injured in the previous 10 nights of violence.

The worst incident yesterday took place in a housing project in Grigny, south of Paris. Assailants fired on a contingent of riot police confronting gangs of stone-throwing young men.

Ten officers were hit and two were hospitalized, national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said. The gunmen used pellet guns or shotguns to fire birdshot, which can maim but is unlikely to kill, Hamon said.

Police did not fire back. Under strict orders from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the police have not fired a single shot since the riots began, Hamon said.

Compared with the gunbattles and body counts of riots in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities in recent decades, the French disturbances have been marked by a kind of ritualistic restraint. The rioters have mainly attacked private property and symbols of the state.

The nominal trigger for the riots was an incident in the poor suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois in which two teenagers, one wanted by police, hid from officers in a power substation and were accidentally electrocuted.

One of France's biggest Muslim organizations issued a fatwa yesterday condemning the riots, according to news reports.

The religious edict announced by the Union of Islamic Organizations in France referred to Quranic passages forbidding the destruction of property. The organization has links to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and has had a sometimes tense relationship with the government.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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