- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France — Rampaging youths shot at police and firefighters yesterday after burning car dealerships and public buses and hurling rocks at commuter trains, as eight days of riots over poor conditions in Paris-area housing projects spread to 20 towns.

Youths ignored an appeal for calm from President Jacques Chirac, whose government worked feverishly to fend off a political crisis amid criticism that it has ignored problems in neighborhoods heavily populated by first- and second-generation North African and other Muslim immigrants.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called a string of emergency meetings with Cabinet ministers throughout the day. He told the Senate the government “will not give in” to violence in the troubled suburbs.

“Order and justice will be the final word in our country,” Mr. de Villepin said. “The return to calm and the restoration of public order are the priority — our absolute priority.”

The riots started Oct. 27 after the fatal shocking of two teenagers who ran from a soccer game and hid in a power station in the northeastern suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois after they saw police enter the area. Youths in the neighborhood said police chased the boys to their death.

French authorities have said that officers were investigating a suspected burglary and not pursuing the boys, a view backed up by an interim report by the national police inspectors office released yesterday.

Investigators said the boys — Mauritania-born Traore Bouna, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, of Tunisia — knew of the dangers of hiding in an electric substation as they sought to evade police. The report also cites two witnesses saying they did not see the boys being chased. A third boy, Muttin Altun, 17, was badly burned.

Separate administrative and judicial investigations into the accidental deaths also were under way.

By Wednesday night, violence triggered by the deaths had spread to at least 20 Paris-region towns, said Jean-Francois Cordet, the top government official for the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris where the violence has been concentrated. He said youths in the region fired four shots at riot police and firefighters but caused no injuries.

Nine persons were injured in Seine-Saint-Denis and 315 cars burned across the Paris area, officials said. In the tough northeastern suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, youth gangs set fire to a Renault car dealership and burned at least a dozen cars, a supermarket and a local gymnasium.

Traffic was halted yesterday morning on a suburban commuter line linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport after stone-throwing rioters attacked two trains overnight at the Le Blanc-Mesnil station. They forced a conductor from one train and broke windows, the national rail authority SNCF said. A passenger was slightly injured by broken glass.

Mr. de Villepin’s major political rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday that the riots in several Paris suburbs over the previous night were “not spontaneous” but rather “well organized,” Agence France-Presse reported.

“What we saw in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis overnight was not spontaneous, it was perfectly organized. We are looking into by whom and how,” Mr. Sarkozy told French news channel I-Tele.

The unrest has highlighted the division between France’s big cities and their poor suburbs, with frustration simmering in the housing projects in areas marked by high unemployment, crime and poverty.

The violence also cast doubt on the success of France’s model of seeking to integrate its large immigrant community by playing down differences between ethnic groups. The country’s Muslim population, at an estimated 5 million, is Western Europe’s largest. Rather than feeling embraced as full and equal citizens, immigrants and their French-born children complain of police harassment and of being refused jobs, housing and opportunities.

AP writer Cecile Brisson contributed to this report from Bobigny, France.

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