Calm appears to return but tensions still high
PARIS, Nov 10 (AFP) - Exactly two weeks into one of the worst crises in the country's modern history, France's government was cautiously hopeful Thursday that the wave of violence that has swept through many of its towns and cities could be past its peak.
A marked downturn in the number of car-burnings overnight Tuesday — coupled with a carrot-and-stick initiative combining emergency police powers with the promise of more help for the impoverished suburbs — provided the first hint that calm could be returning.
There was a “significant fall” in the level of violence in French towns and cities overnight, with 482 cars burned and 203 people arrested, national police chief Michel Gaudin said Thursday.
The previous night saw 617 cars torched and 330 people arrested.
The fall was especially marked in the Paris region, where the riots began on October 27 but which saw only 95 cars burned overnight. The figures confirmed a pattern established since the weekend which has seen the provinces overtake the capital as the prime focus of the unrest.
At the peak of the trouble on Sunday night some 1,400 vehicles were burned 395 people arrested across the country.
Isolated outbreaks of violence were reported during the night at Lyon — where there was a two-hour power cut for many residents because of an act of sabotage — Toulouse, Lille, Belfort and Saint-Quentin.
In the worst outbreak of urban violence since May 1968, France has been struggling to contain a surge of car-burnings, arson attacks and rioting carried out in the main by young Arab and black residents of the country’s poor out-of-town estates.
After the main focus of the riots shifted at the weekend away from the capital, the violence appeared to be spurred by a spirit of competition among neighbourhoods across the country, which police officials were hoping had now run its course.
However tensions remained high, and there was acute awareness that a mishandled situation — or worse the injury or death of a rioter — could easily plunge the high-immigration ‘banlieues’ back into the abyss.
Meanwhile controversy surrounded a call by the tough-talking interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy for foreigners convicted of acts of violence during the troubles to be deported — a measure denounced by left-wing parties and campaigning groups as a breach of human rights.
Sarkozy — who is already the number one hate-figure of the young rioters — caused further fury among his political opponents when he spoke out in favour of explusions for foreigners convicted of violence, even those bearing residence permits.
“If someone has the honour of carrying a residence permit, the least one can say is that he shouldn’t get himself arrested for provoking urban violence,” the minister said. Some 120 of those detained are believed to bear foreign nationality.
Human rights groups and left-wing politicians said Sarkozy was playing to the gallery at a time when there is widespread pressure to stop the violence, and that explusions would be in breach of French and European law, as well as natural justice.
It remained far from clear if Sarkozy’s call would lead to any deportations, as many of those detained are minors and any attempt could be challenged in the courts.
Questions were also being asked over how long the state of emergency which the government declared on Tuesday — invoking a 50 year-old law dating from the Algerian war — should be kept in place, if the downward trend in the nightly disturbances continues.
In several towns on the Riviera such as Nice, Cannes and Antibes, as well as at Orleans in the centre and Rouen, Le Havre and Amiens in the north, unaccompanied children under the age of 16 have been ordered to stay at home.
The decision to keep the state of emergency in effect is a sensitive one because to extend the state of emergency beyond the first 12 days would require a government bill, which would itself have to be rubber-stamped by the cabinet at the end of this week.
However the government of president Jacques Chirac is worried that setting the machinery in motion would send out a dangerous signal that the country is on a permanent emergency footing — especially when the measure has been condemned by the left as a provocation to the Arab minority.
The crisis has left the country’s political landscape in a state of limbo, with deep uncertainty over which leaders will emerge with their reputations enhanced or in tatters.
Chirac himself, who is 72 and probably in the closing phase of his long career, has been criticised for appearing to take a back seat during the crisis and leaving day-to-day management to his ally Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and the combative interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
The pair are bitter political rivals — both eye a presidential bid for 2007 — but after initial tensions over Sarkozy’s tough “zero tolerance” response to the unrest, they have presented a united front as the unprecedented scale of the crisis sank in.
On Tuesday their twin-track approach was in evidence as a tough security line — states of emergency with sweeping curfew and search powers — was presented alongside a classic package of social aid measures such as extra investment and the promise of state jobs in stricken areas.
First indications were that the measures are highly popular in the country — with 73 percent in one poll saying they approve the curfews and only 13 percent saying they understand or have sympathy with the rioters.
The government was hopeful that it has found the right formula for defusing the immediate unrest — but beyond the short term the prospects continue to look bleak.
While there has been widespread criticism that France’s country’s model of social integration — based on the ideal of colour-blind equality — has not worked, there is far from a consensus on what steps to take to address the alienation of hundreds of thousands of black and Arab youths.
Sarkozy proposes a radical policy of positive discrimination combined with economic liberalisation to create jobs, but these ideas remain anathema to most of the political establishment.
Subject: French news