- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

From combined dispatches

BOBIGNY, France — French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy defended his tough anti-crime policies yesterday after a fourth night of riots in a Paris suburb, in which tear gas was fired into a mosque during evening prayers.

Mr. Sarkozy vowed to investigate the tear-gas incident and repeated his “zero tolerance” policy toward violence that began when two teenagers were fatally shocked after clambering into a power substation while apparently fleeing from police.

The level of violence yesterday was lower than on the previous four nights, with police firing tear gas canisters and rioters hurling Molotov cocktails at a police station in the suburb, Clichy-sous-Bois.

Twelve arrests were made in the northeastern town, the local authorities said.

Overnight Sunday, youths there threw rocks and set fire to cars, where many immigrants and poor families live in high-rise housing notorious for youth violence.

French television said six police officers were hurt and 11 persons arrested in the violence.

“I want these people to be able to live in peace,” Mr. Sarkozy — considered a leading contender in presidential elections scheduled for 2007 — told reporters as he mingled with local residents outside the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture in Bobigny, which oversees Clichy-sous-Bois.

“For 30 years, the situation has been getting worse in a number of neighborhoods,” he said, honing his theme of the need for a break with past policies that underpin his strategy for the presidential race.

“I am perfectly aware that it is not in three days or in three months that we will make up for 30 years,” he added, pledging to crack down on gangs and drug dealers.

Mr. Sarkozy, who made his name by cutting crime figures during a first stint as interior minister from 2002 to 2004, later discussed the unrest with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a potential rival in the 2007 race.

Critics accuse Mr. Sarkozy of pandering to the far right with his tough rhetoric on crime, and say his tough talk is feeding tensions between youths and the police while failing to cut crime in run-down suburbs — many of them high-immigration areas facing chronic poverty, high unemployment and poor economic prospects.

During a highly publicized visit last week to Argenteuil, a suburb northwest of the capital, Mr. Sarkozy was pelted with stones and bottles as he outlined a new government plan to root out crime from the neighborhood.

A local human rights group has described Mr. Sarkozy’s talk of “cleaning up” the suburbs as a “provocation” that helped explain the escalation of violence over the weekend.

Opposition Socialists said the disturbances were proof that Mr. Sarkozy’s tough policies were failing.

“We need to act at the same time on prevention, repression, education, housing, jobs … and not play the cowboy,” former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who also has presidential ambitions, told Europe 1 radio.

Siyakah Traore, whose brother died in the substation four days earlier, called for an end to the disturbances.

“We want calm, we want justice to be done, we want the riot police to leave and to be received by Mr. Villepin,” he told reporters. Mr. Sarkozy had offered to meet the dead youths’ parents, but it was not clear if the meeting would take place, aides said.

The Clichy riots were the latest in a series of incidents in the northeastern suburbs.

In June, an 11-year-old boy was killed by a stray bullet in the northern area of La Courneuve. The eastern suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine made headlines in 2002 when a 17-year-old girl was set ablaze by an 18-year-old man.

Mr. Sarkozy, who returned as interior minister in late May, launched a new crime offensive in October, ordering specially trained police to tackle 25 problem neighborhoods.

“Sarkozy is confusing real firmness with firmness for the television cameras,” Socialist spokesman Julien Dray said in comments to be published in the Le Parisien newspaper.

Mr. Sarkozy’s shoot-from-the-lip style also has irritated some Cabinet ministers. Equal Opportunities Minister Azouz Begag has implicitly criticized Mr. Sarkozy’s recent reference to suburban youths as “riffraff.”

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