Chirac Speaks Out on Rioting

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 7, 2005

PARIS, Nov. 6 -- French President Jacques Chirac addressed the public Sunday for the first time in 11 days of the country's worst violence in decades, saying his government's "absolute priority" was "reestablishing security and public order." His brief appearance came hours after the arson rampages struck the heart of Paris and accelerated their spread to other major French cities.

Those sowing "violence or fear" will be "arrested, judged and punished," Chirac said from the steps of the Elysee Palace after an emergency meeting of his national security council.

Law enforcement officials said the unrest -- including nightly arson and what they described as copycat attacks -- was spreading more rapidly than their ability to respond to it. The violence began in the northern suburbs of Paris, where large populations of immigrants and their French-born children live.

Police said gangs of youths, apparently roused by television images and summoned by Internet blogs, torched 51 cars in Paris on Saturday night, including in attacks at the congested Place de la Republique near the trendy Marais district. Blazes were also set in 42 cities from Rennes, the capital of Brittany in the north, to Nice on the Cote d'Azur in the south. Details from each day's violence are not fully known until the next morning.

"What do you expect?" said Paul Merault, a police spokesman interviewed by telephone in the southwestern city of Toulouse, where bands of youths set fire to 50 cars Saturday night. "For the last 10 days these kids have been watching TV, and naturally there is a copycat effect, a desire to imitate what they see on the screen."

The violence continued Sunday night with more arson attacks across the country and rioters shooting at police in the suburb of Grigny, south of Paris. Ten police officers were injured, two of them seriously, according to early reports.

Violence is now erupting in towns with little history of unrest, underscoring the widespread dissatisfaction with the government's policies toward its poorest citizens.

"If we don't take the appropriate measures right away, things could get way out of proportion," said Stephane Ribou, a police spokesman in Rennes. Ribou said the city of 200,000 had one of the lowest delinquency rates in the country. On Saturday night, roving groups of young men set 18 cars and 40 garbage bins ablaze there, he said.

In one of the most extreme episodes of violence Saturday night, youths in Evreux, a city in northwestern France, assaulted police and set fire to a strip mall, two schools, a post office and 53 cars.

"Rioters attacked us with baseball bats," Philippe Jofres, a deputy fire chief, told France-2 television. "We were attacked with pickaxes. It was war."

Five police officers and three firefighters were injured in the clashes, police said.

In Corbeil-Essonnes, a suburb south of Paris, a car rammed into a McDonald's restaurant, setting it ablaze and burning it to the ground. And Justice Ministry officials said they discovered a crude bomb-making workshop in a dilapidated building in Evry, south of Paris, that contained 100 empty bottles and gallons of fuel, according to the Associated Press.

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