As rioters spread fire and violence across France on Sunday, shooting and wounding police officers, President Jacques Chirac vowed to restore calm and punish those responsible for 11 days of disturbances.
Chirac made his first public comments on the unrest after a rare meeting of his security Cabinet that underscored the gravity of the situation. The rampage of arson and vandalism has spilled from hardscrabble housing projects into provincial towns and the capital itself. Rioters showed alarming new aggressiveness Sunday night in clashes that injured 34 police officers, including 10 hit by birdshot from firearms.
“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 intended 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 today a plan to deal with deprivation, discrimination and youth unemployment, which is close to 50% 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 on the industrial peripheries of many 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 Sunday, and his decision to convene ministers in charge of law enforcement and defense, were designed to send a message of strength.
But on the streets Sunday night, thousands of police backed by helicopters clashed again with fast-moving, wellorganized gangs of masked, hooded vandals on scooters and bikes who had torched at least 839 vehicles by midnight. Police made 186 arrests.
About 1,300 vehicles burned overnight Saturday and early Sunday, the most since the unrest began. The toll of 34 injured officers represented a major escalation; only seven had been injured in the previous 10 nights of violence.
The worst incident Sunday 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. Two were hospitalized, with one wounded in the throat and the other in the leg, national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said. The shooters used pellet guns or shotguns to fire birdshot, which can maim but is unlikely to kill, Hamon said.
Police did not shoot back. Under strict orders from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the police have not fired a single shot since the riots began, Hamon said. Rioters reportedly fired on police about half a dozen times.
“We are fearful for our officers because of these shootings,” he said. “But they are showing great professionalism. The order is repeated to them every morning. Still, at some point an officer might find himself trapped, confronted by a gang or something, and you don’t know what could happen.”
Compared with the gun battles 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.
Although there have been no deaths, there has been plenty of brutality. A 61-year-old retiree remained hospitalized in grave condition Sunday after being beaten when he went to check on a garbage can fire at his apartment building in the working-class suburb of Stains.
In Normandy, an assault early Sunday by a mob in Evreux left four police officers wounded, one seriously, and destroyed a shopping center, a post office and two schools.
“Rioters attacked us with baseball bats,” Philippe Jofres, a deputy fire chief sitting in his truck, told the France-2 television network. “We were attacked with pickaxes. It was war.”
It was the first outbreak in Evreux. The destruction also spread to Lyon, Nantes, Nice and Cannes.
The nominal trigger for the riots was an incident in the poor Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Two teenagers, one wanted by police, hid from officers in a power substation and were accidentally electrocuted.
Police said the casualties have been low partly because guns are still rare in France. Many of the rioters are teens who have trouble obtaining anything more powerful than pellet guns. Although heavy weapons such as AK-47 assault rifles can be found in housing projects, they are held mainly by older, experienced criminals involved in organized robbery gangs, investigators say.
“They are specialists, and they don’t have any interest in getting involved in this for the moment, luckily,” a police intelligence official said. “That’s why we are finding kids with low-quality, inferior guns if we find any at all.” But the rioters have other weapons. On Sunday, police arrested six youths in Evry, a town south of Paris, in a basement where they had assembled 90 Molotov cocktails.
One of France’s leading Muslim organizations issued a religious edict, or fatwa, Sunday condemning the riots, according to news reports. The statement by the Union of Islamic Organizations in France cited Koranic passages forbidding the destruction of property. The group has links to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and has had a sometimes tense relationship with the government.
Islamic groups, from wellintegrated moderates to violent anti-Western extremists, are believed to wield great power in the housing projects. Debate persists among political leaders and police about whether religious extremists have had a role in inciting the unrest.
So far, intelligence officials mainly report instigation by small-time gangsters but only scattered activity by Muslim extremists. Nonetheless, police worry that hard-core Islamist groups could exploit the situation by encouraging the unrest or gain new prominence if the government enlists their assistance in restoring peace.