France 'must respond by confronting racism'

President Jacques Chirac has called for a collective fight against racism in response to France’s worst unrest in almost 40 years, saying discrimination poisons society.

Addressing the nation yesterday for the first time since the unrest broke out nearly three weeks ago, Chirac said he had asked parliament to extend a state of emergency declared on November 9 beyond 12 days to three months. Politicians were to debate the issue today.

Chirac also announced the creation of national volunteer corps to provide job training for 50,000 youths by 2007. The president said in the coming days he would meet business and labour leaders to discuss work force diversity and more jobs for youths from tough neighbourhoods.

“We can build nothing lasting if we allow racism, intolerance, and abuse,” Chirac said in a televised speech. “We can build nothing lasting unless we fight this poison for society that is discrimination.”

The number of cars burned – which has become a measure of the unrest - continued to drop and there were no overnight clashes between youths and riot police, said National Police Chief Michel Gaudin.

“The situation is getting back to normal,” Gaudin told France-Info radio, adding that the extension of a state of emergency was a “necessary” measure for keeping the peace.

The crisis has led to collective soul-searching about France’s failure to integrate its African and Muslim minorities. Anger about high unemployment and discrimination has fanned frustration among the French-born children of immigrants from France’s former colonies.

Chirac appealed for all to help eliminate attitudes that lead to youths not being considered for jobs because they have a non-French name, a suburban postal code, or the wrong skin-colour.

“It’s about giving young people the same job opportunities,” Chirac said. “How many CVs end up in the trash bin because of the applicant’s name or address?”

Even as Chirac spoke, the violence continued for a 19th night with at least one attack targeting Muslims.

Vandals threw three firebombs at a mosque in Saint-Chamond in the Loire region, causing minor damage, the national police said. It was the third attack of its kind on a mosque since Friday.

However, the number of incidents continued to drop overnight, with youths setting fire to 162 vehicles by 4am local time (3am Irish time) today, compared with 271 at the same time a day earlier, the national police said.

Forty-two people were arrested, compared with 112 at the same time the night before.

The numbers have fallen steadily since vandals burned 1,408 vehicles across France in one night on November 6 at the peak of the violence. Police say French youths burn about 100 cars on an average Saturday night.

The state of emergency gives regional authorities the power to call curfews, conduct day-and-night searches of homes or deport foreigners convicted in the violence. About 40 towns, including France’s third-largest city, Lyon, have used the measure, imposing curfews on minors.

The unrest was set off by the accidental electrocution deaths of two teenagers on October 27 as they hid from police in a power substation in the north-east Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.

The decision to extend the state of emergency until mid-February made clear that authorities fear the riots could flare up again.

Since being admitted to hospital in September for an ailment that many suspected was a stroke, Chirac – who turns 73 later this month – had left Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to speak for the French government.

Chirac showed no sign of an ailment yesterday but, unusually, wore spectacles.

The far right, which blames French ills on immigration, has sought to capitalise on the unrest. At a rally yesterday that drew about 300 supporters, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who faced off with Chirac in the 2002 election, castigated immigration policy.

“We let in 10 million foreigners over 30 years. It’s wild insanity. No country can handle that invasion,” Le Pen said.

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