Police chief: 'Major lull' in french riots

Paris escaped renewed urban violence overnight but 374 vehicles were set alight elsewhere in France, according to police reports.

The capital passed an important test with almost no urban violence despite fears of a Saturday night rampage that had prompted thousands of police to be posted at the Eiffel Tower and on the Champs-Elysees.

Elsewhere, stone-throwing rioters clashed with police in Lyon, and youths rammed burning cars into a school and retirement home in the southern town of Carpentras, though no injuries were reported.

Across the country, the situation appeared calmer, with fewer car-torchings - a barometer of the unrest.

In the 17th night of urban violence, 374 vehicles were burned nationwide, down from 502 the night before. Police arrested 212 people.

National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said today there had been a “major lull”.

If it continues, “things could return to normal very quickly,” he said at a news conference.

Unrest has weakened in intensity since the government declared a state-of-emergency on Wednesday, empowering local authorities to invoke exceptional security measures such as curfews for minors.

The violence started in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois on October 27 when about 100 youths rioted to protest at the accidental deaths of two Muslim teenagers who were electrocuted while hiding from police in an electricity substation.

The turmoil, marked by arson and clashes with police, quickly spread across France in housing projects plagued by unemployment and alienation. The unrest has forced France to confront its failure to integrate minorities and the anger simmering among its large African and Arab communities.

Calls for peace and political change were mounting.

Some 71% of French people do not believe President Jacques Chirac can solve the social problems that fuelled the riots, according to an poll published Sunday by the Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Nearly a quarter think far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen can. Le Pen has seized on the violence to promote his National Front party’s “zero immigration” platform.

More than half of those polled expressed confidence in Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Most of the unrest has been concentrated in the disadvantaged suburbs that ring France’s large cities, with little sign of anything unusual in Paris.

Calls for “violent action” on Saturday night in Paris were posted on Internet blogs and sent in text messages to cell phones.

Thousands of police guarded the Eiffel Tower, the tree-lined Champs Elysees avenue and train stations. Only one incident was reported – a fire at a petrol station, Gaudin said.

In Lyon, police fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing youths in a historic square, Place Bellecour. It was the first time in the unrest that youths and police clashed in a major French city.

Just hours earlier, regional authorities had imposed a weekend curfew on Lyon, France’s third-largest city, that barred youths under 18 from being outside without adult supervision late at night.

In separate incidents Saturday night in Carpentras, rioters rammed burning cars into the side of a retirement home and a school, national police spokesman Laurent Carro said. A primary school and linen store were also set ablaze there, he said.

In the northern Paris suburb of La Courneuve, a police officer was injured after he was hit with a metal ball dropped from an apartment building. Arsonists also set an electronics store on fire Saturday night in Blangnac, on the outskirts of Toulouse, the regional government said.

Some 40 towns, suburbs and smaller cities have imposed curfews on minors to clamp down on the violence. Paris police took the exceptional step of banning all public gatherings that could “provoke or encourage disorder” from 10am on Saturday to 8am on Sunday.

Police spokesman Hugo Mahboubi said it had been at least a decade and possibly longer since authorities had imposed any similar ban on gatherings in the French capital.

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