Rioters defied emergency laws that took effect today as they looted and burned two superstores, set fire to a newspaper office and paralysed France’s second-largest city’s subway system with a firebomb.
However, the number of car burnings – a barometer for the unrest – dropped sharply, suggesting the movement lost steam overnight.
From last night until today, youths torched 617 vehicles, down from 1,173 the previous night, national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said. Incidents were reported in 116 towns, compared with 226 the night before.
President Jacques Chirac announced extraordinary security measures, which began today and are valid for a 12-day state of emergency, clearing the way for curfews after nearly two weeks of rioting that began in neglected and impoverished suburban neighbourhoods with large Muslim communities.
The French capital and its suburbs as well as more than 30 other cities were covered by the state-of-emergency decree, according to a government bulletin published today.
It empowers officials to put troublemakers under house arrest, ban or limit the movement of people and vehicles, confiscate weapons and close public spaces where gangs gather.
Towns included on the list stretched from Nice on the Mediterranean to Strasbourg on the German border and Le Havre on the English Channel, giving an indication of how widespread the unrest has become.
In overnight violence, officials were forced to shut down the southern city of Lyon’s subway system after a firebomb exploded in a station late yesterday, a regional government spokesman said, adding no one was hurt.
Transport officials were to decide this morning when service could resume, the spokesman said.
Arsonists also set fire to the Nice-Matin newspaper’s office in Grasse in the southeast Alpes-Maritimes region, national police spokesman Patrick Reydy said.
Youths threw petrol bombs at police who retaliated with tear gas in the southern city of Toulouse, where Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was visiting, LCI television said.
“None of us has a choice,” Sarkozy told police and fire department representatives in Toulouse. “We have to succeed. We will not budge a centimetre.”
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said riot police faced “determined individuals, structured gangs, organised criminality.” Police say rioters have been using mobile phone text messages and the internet to organise arson attacks.
De Villepin, tacitly acknowledging that France has failed to live up to its egalitarian ideals, said discrimination was a “daily and repeated” reality.
French regional officials were preparing to use the state-of-emergency powers to impose curfews.
The Interior Ministry said there was no centralised list of towns and cities that would be affected, because curfew measures were being drawn up locally.
The northern French city of Amiens, the central city of Orleans and Savigny-sur-Orge, and the Essonne region south of Paris said they planned curfews for minors, who must be accompanied by adults at night. Despite the curfew, two cars were burned in Amiens, police said.
Six cars were burned there a night earlier.
Curfew violators face up to two months in jail and a €3,700 fine, the Justice Ministry said. Minors face one month in jail.
The 50-year-old state-of-emergency law was drawn up 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.
The violence started on October 27 as a localised riot in a northeast Paris suburb angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers, of Mauritanian and Tunisian descent, electrocuted while hiding from police in a power sub-station.
It has grown into a nationwide insurrection by disillusioned suburban youths, many of them French-born children of immigrants from France’s former territories like Algeria.
France’s suburbs have long been neglected, and their youth complain of a lack of jobs and widespread discrimination.
French historians say the rioting is more widespread and more destructive in material terms than the May riots of 1968, when university students erected barricades in Paris’ Latin Quarter and across France, throwing paving stones at police.
That unrest, a turning point in modern France, led to a general strike by 10 million workers and forced President General Charles de Gaulle to dissolve parliament and fire Premier Georges Pompidou.