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Leaders fiddle as France burns

Colin Randall / London Telegraph | November 8 2005

France was struggling to overcome one of its gravest post-war crises last night as every major city faced the threat of fierce rioting that began 12 nights ago and now seems to have spun out of control.

Despite an assurance from Philippe Douste Blazy, the foreign minister, that France was "not a dangerous country", the spread of violence prompted the Foreign Office in London to warn travellers that trouble could break out "almost anywhere".

Dominique de Villepin, the beleaguered prime minister, announced that officials in riot-hit areas would be authorised to impose late-night curfews "wherever it is necessary" in a bid to halt the disturbances.

He rejected calls by a police union for troops to be sent in but said that 1,500 reservists were being called up and repeated an appeal to parents to keep adolescent rioters off the streets.

Although the disorder began on the intimidating sink estates of Paris's northern suburbs, trouble had been reported yesterday in the early hours from most regions of the country. Even areas such as Brittany, the Loire and Bordeaux, favoured by British holidaymakers and second- home hunters, have now been drawn into the worst wave of unrest in France since the spring revolt of 1968 set in motion the downfall of Gen Charles de Gaulle.

Yesterday the violence also claimed its first life. A 61-year-old man died in hospital three days after being beaten unconscious when he left his home in a northern Paris suburb intending to stop rubbish bins being set on fire.

Even before renewed disturbances broke out last night, figures showed that rioters had wrecked 4,700 vehicles, injured more than 100 police and rescue workers, and opened fire in at least six separate incidents.

Of the 1,200 people arrested, more than 30 - half of them juveniles - have already been jailed or given youth custody.

The police union Action Police CFTC called for curfews to be imposed in all riot-hit areas to combat the "civil war that spreads a little more every day". The mayor of one town, Raincy, north of Paris, announced a late-night street ban on children to "avoid a tragedy". The union also urged the government to send in troops to defeat the trouble-makers, mainly mobs of young people from poor estates dominated by Muslim families whose origins are in France's former colonies in north and sub-Saharan Africa.

Twenty-four hours earlier, a belated and much-criticised intervention by President Jacques Chirac, his first since the violence began, was followed by the worst night of rioting so far.

More than 1,400 vehicles were destroyed, two policemen were injured by birdshot and petrol bomb attacks were launched on schools, churches and public buildings.

Mr Chirac, who had spoken of a French republic resolved to show itself "stronger than those who want to sow violence or fear", made more conciliatory comments in a private meeting yesterday.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia said the French president had admitted to him that "ghettoisation of youths of African or North African origin" was to be deplored, as was French society's "incapacity to fully accept them".

Pascal Clement, the justice minister, announced that three boys, aged 16, had been detained in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence for allegedly using their weblogs, hosted by a pop music radio station, to urge others to riot.

Police claim that ringleaders of the disturbances, which began in the northern Paris surburb of Clichy-sous-Bois on Oct 27 after two boys were accidentally electrocuted while apparently running from police, have become increasingly organised.

The Foreign Office yesterday warned Britons already in France or considering travelling there that the unrest could now break out "almost anywhere".

The new travel advisory painted a much more alarming picture of the threat to British citizens than a similar bulletin issued on Sunday.

Britons should also "avoid any demonstrations which may be taking place in and around" areas affected by the riots, said the Foreign Office website.


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