Paris France's government went into crisis mode Wednesday to deal with spreading rioting in the suburbs of Paris, with the Prime Minister postponing a trip to Canada and the President calling for calm.
In tough northeastern suburbs around Clichy-sous-Bois, where the accidental deaths of two teenagers last week first prompted angry youths to rampage, the hulks of burned-out cars littered streets and young men prepared for a seventh consecutive night of fighting with riot police.
Leaders at Clichy-sous-Bois' mosque prayed for peace and asked parents to keep teenagers off the streets.
The violence, which spread to at least nine Paris-region towns overnight Tuesday, laid bare the despair, anger and deep-rooted criminality in France's poor, unemployment-hit suburbs some of them ghettos where police hesitate to venture despite proof they are fertile terrain for Islamic extremists, drug dealers and racketeers.
The unrest, concentrated in neighbourhoods with large African and Muslim populations, has highlighted the difficulties many European countries face with immigrant communities feeling marginalized and restive, cut off from Europe's prosperity and, for some extremists, its values.
"They have no work. They have nothing to do. Put yourself in their place," said Abderrahmane Bouhout, president of the Clichy-sous-Bois mosque, where a tear gas grenade exploded Sunday, fuelling the anger of local youths who suspected a police attack. Authorities are investigating the incident.
To deal with the unrest, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin postponed a visit to Canada and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy cancelled a Nov. 6-9 trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Ottawa, Melanie Gruer, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Paul Martin, said Mr. Villepin's visit will be rescheduled. The Canadian government is disappointed but understands the postponement, she said.
French President Jacques Chirac, meanwhile, told a weekly cabinet meeting that "the law must be applied firmly" but "in a spirit of dialogue and respect" to prevent "a dangerous situation" from developing. He acknowledged the "profound frustrations" of troubled neighbourhoods but said violence is not the answer.
"Zones without law cannot exist in the republic," he said.
The violence cast doubt on the success of France's model of seeking to integrate its large immigrant community by playing down differences between ethnic groups.
France's Muslim population, at an estimated five million, is Western Europe's largest. Rather than embraced as equal citizens, immigrants and their French-born children often complain of police harassment and of being refused jobs, housing and opportunities.
Eric, a 22-year-old in Clichy-sous-Bois born in France to Moroccan parents, said police target young people with dark skin. He said he has been unable to find full-time work for two years and that the riots were a demonstration of suburban solidarity.
"People are joining together to say we've had enough," he said. He refused to give his surname, saying that talking to reporters was poorly regarded in his neighbourhood. "We live in ghettos," he added. "Everyone lives in fear."
Many immigrant families are trapped in low-cost housing projects built to accommodate foreign labourers after the Second World War, but which have since succumbed to chronic unemployment and lawlessness. In some neighbourhoods, drug dealers and racketeers hold sway and Islamic radicals seek to recruit disenchanted youths, experts say.
"French society is in a bad state ... increasingly unequal, increasingly segregated, and increasingly divided along ethnic and racial lines," said sociologist Manuel Boucher. Some youths turn to Islam to claim an identity that is not French, "to seize on something which gives them back their individual and collective dignity."
Successive governments have injected funds and job-creation schemes but failed to resolve the problems.
"No matter what the politicians say, some neighbourhoods are all but lost," said Patrice Ribeiro, national secretary of the Synergie police officers' union. "Police patrols pass through but without stopping and with their windows rolled up."
In Aulnay-sous-Bois, another northeastern suburb where riot police fired rubber bullets at advancing gangs of youths Tuesday, workers cleaned up charred debris and menacing young men smoked cigarettes in doorways. A group of teenagers chased and threw stones at Associated Press reporters.
"I am afraid. I have children. I have never seen anything like this here," said Aulnay resident Houcine Yahiaoui. "I was watching from my windows last night as kids were burning cars."
Police said 180 vehicles were torched across the Paris region, most of them in the Seine-Saint-Denis region that includes Clichy, Aulnay and other violence-hit neighbourhoods. Police made 35 arrests in Seine-Saint-Denis.