EPINAY-SUR-SEINE, France, (Reuters) – Roving gangs of youths launched hit-and-run arson attacks in the ninth straight night of violence in poor Paris suburbs, as copycat unrest in major towns complicated the government”s search for a response.
Police said 754 vehicles were torched in the Paris region and large provincial towns like Strasbourg, Rennes, Toulouse and Lille, the highest nightly total since the deaths of two youths while apparently fleeing police sparked the disturbances.
"The general impression is that the situation in the greater Paris area is the same as last night but there are some scattered incidents elsewhere," a police official told Reuters.
Rioting by youths, many of whom are Muslims of North African and black African origin, has partly been stoked by their frustration at high unemployment and the perception they lack economic opportunities.
Police said minor incidents were reported in provinces elsewhere in the country but were inclined to blame such disturbances on copy-cat violence before the weekend.
Rioters in Paris suburbs appeared more inclined to harass police than clash with them head-on, an official said. Police said they had deployed for the first time a helicopter to film incidents and to alert foot patrols.
The latest outbreak of violence came despite a high-profile police presence. About 1,400 officers were deployed in Seine-Saint-Denis, the area worst hit in the disturbances.
More officers patrolled other suburbs where unrest had broken out, national police said, adding that the units were more mobile than previously.
The spread of the violence to major provincial conurbations has increased pressure on Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to restore order without alienating minority and underprivileged groups. But his calls for calm have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Religious leaders will lend their support to government efforts to cool tensions, with Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders planning a silent march later on Saturday in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the violence-hit suburbs.
Squabbles within the government about how to tackle the unrest have been papered over, with Villepin and his bitter political rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, joining forces to stress the need to balance firmness and justice.
Villepin met about 15 young people from riot-hit Paris suburbs late on Friday to discuss possible ways to restore calm.
"I think he appreciated this meeting and wanted to learn things. It was a very good initiative, he is really looking to solve the problems," Anyss, an 18-year-old in his final year of high school in Seine-Saint-Denis, said after the meeting.
But the opposition remained critical, with the Socialists attacking the government”s response.
"Your government bears part of the responsibility for these events. It is now up to you to take full stock of the crisis," Socialist leaders said in letter to Villepin on Thursday.