President Jacques Chirac met with his cabinet Wednesday to map out a strategy against rioting that spread to 13 immigrant-dominated towns on the outskirts of Paris. After darkness fell Wednesday, youths turned out in several areas for a seventh night of violence, setting cars on fire and throwing rocks at police.
"Zones without law cannot exist in the republic," Chirac told his cabinet in a closed meeting, according to his spokesman, Jean-Francois Cope. The president declared that law would be enforced "firmly" but also acknowledged frustrations in immigrant neighborhoods and urged dialogue.
Chirac has not personally addressed the French public about the unrest that erupted last Thursday night when two Muslim teenagers of African heritage were electrocuted in a power substation while dodging a police checkpoint in the impoverished town of Chichy-sous-Bois northeast of Paris.
A rapid escalation of the violence Tuesday night appeared to shock France's leadership. Gangs set fire to as many as 228 vehicles in 13 poor, immigrant towns and communities, according to local police and news media.
Youths attacked a fire station in the northern suburban town of Aulnay-sous-Bois and a vacant social center in the southeastern community of Seine-e-Marne, and set fire to cars in Yvelines, west of the capital, police reported. Riot police, bunched together behind protective shields, fired rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades and tear gas canisters in an effort to disperse the attackers.
Television footage showed one group of riot policemen pointing their guns through the window of an apartment building's door as women and children cowered and ducked out of sight.
The violence was contagious in communities of immigrants and second-generation French citizens where unemployment is more than twice the national average, crime is rampant, social services are minimal and residents are packed into the shabby high-rise apartments of subsidized housing.
"This problem is exploding in the face of the government," said Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations. "They have politicized it so much they are making fools of themselves. There's the image of Paris burning and that is very, very bad."
Because of the violence, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin postponed a planned visit on Wednesday to Canada and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who oversees domestic security, canceled a four-day trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan scheduled to begin on Sunday, according to statements issued by their offices.
Chirac's cabinet members met throughout the day Wednesday, but announced no concrete plans for countering the spiraling violence. De Villepin and Sarkozy have blamed each other for inaction in a series of nasty public barbs.
Both men are competing within Chirac's political party to run for the French presidency in 2007.
"The spectacle of the open rift over this issue between the prime minister and his allies on the one hand and the interior minister and his supporters on the other is pathetic," the newspaper Liberation said in an editorial Wednesday. The paper said the unrest has become a pretext for "a new test of strength" between the two presidential contenders.
The Socialist Party criticized Chirac and de Villepin for their "inexcusable" silence over the violence and criticized Sarkozy for his hard-line approach toward the poor communities.
"When an interior minister doesn't hesitate to use insulting terms, branding as 'rabble' communities which have the misfortune to be fragile and wanting to turn water cannons on them, it is the image of the country that is tarnished," the party said in a statement.
The violent outbursts have been particularly sensitive for Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, who has advocated more rights for immigrants and has proposed changes in French law that would allow government buildings to be used as mosques. But he also has ordered major crackdowns on crime in poor communities where residents say police often harass them needlessly.
In an interview published in the newspaper Le Parisien Wednesday, Sarkozy said some of France's poorest towns are under "the rule of gangs, of drugs and of traffickers." He insisted his crime-fighting techniques would use both "firmness and justice."
Families of the two youths who were electrocuted said that fear of harassment led the pair to try hiding in a dangerous power substation rather than face police at an identity checkpoint. Family members said witnesses reported seeing police officers chasing the youths. French officials have denied police were pursuing them.
Many of the residents of the northern suburban areas where the violence has been most intense are Muslim. The street fighting threatened to take on religious overtones Sunday when a police tear gas canister was thrown inside a mosque where about 700 worshipers were taking part in prayers. Local Islamic leaders said they have attempted to persuade local youths -- particularly Muslims -- to refrain from violence.
French officials said 34 people were detained in Tuesday night's street fighting.