Wednesday, November 9, 2005

PARIS — France declared a state of emergency yesterday in a bid to quell the country’s worst unrest since the student uprisings of 1968 that toppled a government.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said the nation faced a “moment of truth” over its failure to integrate the heavily immigrant suburbs where rioting began among black and Arab youths, many of who are Muslims.

Mr. de Villepin, tacitly acknowledging that France has failed to live up to its egalitarian ideals, reached out yesterday to these suburbs.

Despite his conciliatory tone, Mr. de Villepin said riot police faced “determined individuals, structured gangs, organized criminality,” and that restoring order “will take time.”

Rioters have been using mobile phone text messages and the Internet to organize arson attacks, said police, who arrested two teenage bloggers accused of inciting other youths to riot.

The extraordinary state of emergency clears the way for curfews to try to halt the country’s worst civil unrest in nearly four decades.

Mr. de Villepin said France must make a priority of working against the discrimination that feeds the frustration of youths made to feel that they do not belong in France.

“The effectiveness of our integration model is in question,” the prime minister told Parliament. He called the riots “a warning” and “an appeal.”

“The republic is at a moment of truth,” Mr. de Villepin said.

Lawmakers at the impassioned parliamentary debate also spoke frankly about France’s failings.

But images of French teenagers from North and West African immigrant families pelting riot police with stones and gasoline bombs — reminiscent of Palestinian youths attacking Israeli patrols — have struck chords in the Muslim world as well.

Arson attacks, and rioting have spread from the suburbs to hundreds of cities and towns, though acts of violence abated somewhat Monday night.

The state-of-emergency law that President Jacques Chirac invoked was drawn up 50 years ago to quell unrest in Algeria during its war of independence from France and was last used in December 1984 by the socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand against rioting in the French Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia.

Under the emergency laws, police — with 8,000 officers deployed and 1,500 reservists called up as reinforcements — could be empowered to put troublemakers under house arrest, ban or limit the movement of people and vehicles, confiscate weapons and close public spaces where gangs gather, Mr. de Villepin said.

The widespread violence already has led France to begin fast-track trials, with 106 adults and 33 minors so far sentenced to prison or detention centers.

The violence started Oct. 27 as a localized riot in a northeast Paris suburb angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent who were fatally shocked.

It has grown into a nationwide insurrection by disillusioned suburban youths, many of them French-born children of immigrants from France’s former territories such as Algeria.

France’s suburbs have long been neglected, and their youths complain of a lack of jobs and widespread discrimination.

In his speech to parliament, Mr. de Villepin said job seekers with foreign-sounding names do not get equal consideration as those with traditional French-sounding names when presenting resumes.

The French system, said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a lawmaker from Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of northeast Paris where the unrest started, is “running out of steam.”

The main opposition Socialists, through their parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault, said they did not oppose the use of curfews, but also warned that they should not be used to hide suburban “misery” or become “a new mark of segregation.”

Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet warned that the decree could enflame rioters. “It could be taken anew as a sort of challenge to carry out more violence,” she said.

French historians say the rioting is more widespread and destructive in material terms than the riots of 1968, when university students erected barricades in Paris’ Latin Quarter and across France. That unrest led to a general strike by 10 million workers and forced then-President Charles De Gaulle to dissolve parliament and fire Premier Georges Pompidou.

Associated Press Writers Christine Ollvier, Jamey Keaten and Angela Doland contributed to this report.

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