By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 13, 2005
PARIS, Nov. 12 -- Dozens of youths threw trash cans at police and attacked sidewalk shops in a main square of Lyon on Saturday night in the first clash between rioters and police in a city center after more than two weeks of violence in France, according to news reports.
Youths stormed through the historic Place Bellecour in Lyon, France's third-largest city, located in the southeastern Rhone Valley region, even though the city had imposed a nighttime curfew on minors not accompanied by parents. Police fired tear gas to disperse the youths, and 10 people were arrested, officials said.
Most of the recent violence in France -- the worst civil unrest in the country in nearly 40 years -- has occurred in poor suburbs and neighborhoods populated by large numbers of immigrants and their French-born children. The rioters have said the nightly attacks are attempts to expose the inequities and pervasive discrimination in French society.
In Paris, an estimated 3,000 police swarmed across the city Saturday, reinforcing security at major tourist sites and suburban subway and train lines after a wave of Internet blogs and cell phone text messages urged the youths who have been torching cars and government buildings in the suburbs to take their grievances to the heart of the capital.
"This is not a rumor," National Police Chief Michel Gaudin told reporters, adding that two of Paris's most popular tourist sites -- the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees -- were among potential targets for violence. "I think one can easily imagine the places where we must be highly vigilant."
No incidents of violence were reported inside Paris, though unrest continued Saturday in 163 cities and towns across France, according to police. On Saturday night, the 17th night of the rioting, a policeman was injured in a Paris suburb when he was hit by a metal ball thrown from an apartment building.
In the southern town of Carpentras in the Provence region, youths burned a school Saturday night. On Friday night, a motor-scooter rider threw two gasoline bombs at a mosque during prayers, causing minor damage. Police said it was unclear whether the attack was linked to the other violence around the country. Many of the youths involved in the rioting are Muslim.
Although the level of violence has declined since last weekend, when more than 1,400 vehicles were burned in one night across 300 towns and communities, police said 502 cars were set ablaze Friday night and early Saturday morning, a slight increase from the previous night.
In Paris, youths booed and yelled curses at Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy when he tried to inspect a group of police reinforcements on a crowded street in Paris Saturday. He ducked back into his car and drove away, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.
Sarkozy -- considered a leading contender for France's 2007 presidential election -- is reviled by those leading the rampages across the country. Before the riots began, he referred to troublemakers in the poor housing projects of the suburbs as "rabble" that should be cleaned out with a "power hose," and after the civil unrest started he called the perpetrators "scum."
Police and military security has been bolstered around tourist sites in Paris since multiple bombings in London in July. Last month, French officials staged a mock terrorist attack on the Eiffel Tower and a double-decker tourist bus on the street in front of the tower. French commandos outfitted in black slid down ropes from the first level of the tower and raced to the rescue of tourists held hostage in the simulation as thousands of real tourists looked on.
On Saturday, the heaviest concentration of police was around the Elysee Palace, the official residence of President Jacques Chirac. Dozens of police manned barricades around the ornate building and its grounds along the Champs-Elysees, Paris's most famous boulevard.
In other areas, however, police remained discreetly inside their buses, cars and vans, mostly just out of sight of tourists lined up outside museums, galleries and other sites.
Arjang Ahmadpour, 20, a student from Los Angeles waiting in line in a cold drizzle to take the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, shrugged off concerns about the unrest. "People asked me, 'Oh, you're going to Paris? Aren't you scared?' " he said.
His response, he said, has been, "They're not going after tourists."