Some 3,000 police fanned out around Paris today ahead of feared weekend attacks on high-profile targets such as the Eiffel Tower, as the number of vehicles torched overnight rose slightly elsewhere in France, according to officials.
Authorities in eastern France imposed a weekend curfew on 10 towns in south-eastern France and in Lyon, France’s third largest city, banning children from being outside without adult supervision between 10pm and 6am.
Clashes erupted in central Lyon before the curfew took effect, with youths hurling stones at riot police tonight in the historic Place Bellecour. Police fired tear gas, and the youths quickly dispersed, a television station reported.
Security was tightest in the French capital, were police were posted in suburban trains and at strategic points. Authorities banned public gatherings considered risky until tomorrow morning, after “violent actions” were posted on numerous internet blogs and sent in mobile phone text messages.
“This is not a rumour,” National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said. The Eiffel Tower and Champs-Elysees boulevard were among potential targets, he said.
“One can easily imagine the places where we must be highly vigilant,” he added.
Last night, two petrol bombs were tossed into a mosque in the southern city of Carpentras, slightly damaging the foyer. It was not immediately clear whether the attack was linked to the unrest that has wracked the poor suburbs and towns of France since October 27.
President Jacques Chirac asked investigators to find those behind the incident in Carpentras, a town grimly remembered for a 1990 neo-Nazi attack on a Jewish cemetery that sparked national outrage.
Two weeks ago, in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois where the violence started, fumes from a police tear gas grenade spread into a mosque and heightened the anger that has fuelled the worst suburban unrest in the country’s history.
The unrest has forced France to squarely confront the touchy issue of the poor suburbs surrounding big cities populted by immigrants and their French children. They face soaring unemployment, poverty and discrimination on a daily basis.
Authorities have acknowledged the roots of the problem are deep-seated, perhaps linked to the French approach to immigration which allegedly works to fit immigrants, whatever their origins, into a single mould.
The unrest was triggered by the accidental deaths of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois. The teens, who thought they were being pursued by police, hid in a power substation and were electrocuted. Youths in the area turned their anger on police.
Since then, the violence has been propagated by what police claim are “copy cat” acts around France, and similar incidents have been reported elsewhere in Europe.
In neighbouring Belgium, 15 vehicles were burned overnight, including a bus torched near the eastern city of Liege, officials said. But the government there played down fears of the kind of unrest that has hit France, with hundreds of nightly arson attacks on vehicles.
Schools, gymnasiums, warehouses and public transport in France also have been favourite targets for arson. A furniture store and a carpet store were burned overnight in Rambouillet, south-west of Paris, police said.
The violence peaked last weekend, when vandals burned 1,400 vehicles in one night of nationwide mayhem.
Overall, some 2,440 people have been arrested since the start of the unrest, with 358 of them already sentenced to prison terms. Nearly 458 youths under the age of 18 have been brought before juvenile courts, and 102 of them were in the process of being charged, the country’s justice ministry said.