PARIS (AFP) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Wednesday that rioters who shot at police during a flare-up of Paris suburban unrest would be severely punished, as authorities struggled to contain the violence.
Back from a state visit to China, Sarkozy visited a police chief seriously injured in France’s worst troubles since nationwide riots in restive suburbs in 2005, before chairing a special cabinet meeting on the disturbances.
“Opening fire at officials is completely unacceptable,” Sarkozy warned, accusing the rioters of “attempted murder” and promising that “those who take it into their hands to shoot at officials will find themselves in court.”
At least 120 police officers have been injured since violence broke out Sunday in the north Paris suburb of Villiers le Bel, touched off after two teenagers were killed in a motorbike collision with a police car.
Some 1,000 riot police clamped down Tuesday night on Villiers where they largely managed to prevent a third night of riots.
Dozens of cars and several buildings were still torched, mainly in towns around Villiers, the regional authorities said.
Youths threw petrol bombs at police and tried to set fire to a bus in Les Mureaux northwest of Paris. In Vitry sur Seine south of the capital, arsonists threw a flaming chair through the window of a primary school.
The regional prefect said there were “half as many” arson attacks compared with Monday night when 63 cars and five buildings went up in flames. He said “a few police officers” were injured.
In the southern city of Toulouse, about 20 cars were torched and a blaze was started in a library.
Police unions say the scale and intensity of the violence unleashed since Sunday is worse than the 2005 riots — also sparked by the deaths of two youths.
For two nights this week, youths have hurled petrol bombs and bricks at police, torching cars and buildings. Hunting rifles have also been used against police — dramatically upping the stakes in the face-off.
“It felt like they were coming to kill us. We knew there were weapons in the suburbs, but never turned against us like that,” one police officer, shot by rioters on Sunday night, told AFP.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who spent the evening in Villiers, said the situation was “much calmer than the two previous nights.”
“But we can all feel that it remains fragile and it requires a strong deterrent force on the ground to stop what happened last night from recurring.”
Police and politicians say the French suburbs remain a “tinderbox” after the 2005 riots, which exposed France’s failure to integrate its large black and Arab population.
Government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez said after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting that a nationwide plan to boost education, job prospects and transport links in the suburbs would be unveiled as planned on January 22.
He said the proposals drawn up by Housing Minister Fadela Amara, a rights campaigner of Algerian origin who comes from the suburbs, aimed “not once again to throw billions at the suburbs, but to target the real human problems.”
Eager to appease locals, some of whom suspect police of causing the fatal accident on Sunday then fleeing the scene, Sarkozy met Wednesday with the families of the victims and promised them a full inquiry.
State prosecutor Marie-Therese de Givry later announced the opening of a judicial investigation for manslaughter into the death of Moshin Cehhouli, 15, and Lakami Samoura, 16.
An initial investigation has confirmed the police version of Sunday’s deaths, according to which the two teenagers — neither wearing a crash helmet — were riding a motorbike that hit the police car.
Many Villiers residents voiced anger at the intense police deployment cordoning off their neighbourhood.
“Oi, you aliens up there!” yelled one at the surveillance helicopters circling overhead. “It’s like being at war… they’re just out to provoke young people.”
But Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told Europe 1 radio the police clampdown would be “maintained as long as necessary”, suggesting local gang leaders were orchestrating the violence. She vowed “zero tolerance”.