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Unrest brings French leaders under fire

More than 1,000 cars were burned Saturday as violence spread around the country.

As urban violence spread Sunday from the shores of the Mediterranean to the German border and onto the streets of central Paris, the French government came under increasing fire for its dithering response to the mounting wave of unrest.

Government leaders have held repeated meetings amongst themselves and with neighborhood representatives, and more than 2,300 riot police are patrolling the uneasy Paris suburbs to deal with youths burning cars and buildings. But officials have offered no concrete proposals to quell the disturbances, even after 10 straight nights of tumult.

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"Where is the president of the republic when such grave things happen?" asked opposition Socialist party leader Fran├žois Hollande on Sunday, criticizing Jacques Chirac for his silence since appealing for "dialogue" last Wednesday. "I would like to hear from him."

The right-wing nationalist leader Philippe de Villiers urged the government to "send the army into the suburbs" to put down what he said was "looking more and more like an ethnic civil war."

On Saturday night, violence that has racked the city's suburbs spilled over into better-off districts, with youths setting fire to 28 cars in the streets of the capital.

Incidents of arson were also reported in the early hours of Sunday from cities in the south, such as Marseille, from Lille in the north, and from Strasbourg in the East, among others. Over 1,000 cars were torched nationwide during the night, according to a police count.

The wave of unrest by immigrant-descended young men has spread nightly since two teenagers electrocuted themselves on Oct. 27 while hiding from police in an electrical substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.

The violence has drawn fresh attention to the frustration and despair simmering in heavily ethnic neighborhoods plagued by unemployment, poverty, and crime. France is home to the largest immigrant community in Europe, totaling some 10 percent of its 60 million population.

These districts have sporadically gone up in flames before, attracting public and political attention for a brief span, and then reverting to normal life out of most peoples' sight and mind.

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Former President Fran├žois Mitterrand once publicly sympathized with the inhabitants of the projects, wondering aloud in 1990, while he was still in office, "What can a young person hope for, born in a soulless neighborhood, living in an ugly building surrounded by ugliness, grey walls in grey surroundings for a grey life, surrounded by a society that prefers to avert its eyes and get involved only when it is time to get angry and to stop people from doing things?"

But never has such violence continued so long and spread so widely, points out Jean-Luc Parodi, a pollster and prominent political analyst. "This is going to shake things up, it will certainly start a debate" about the circumstances that have provoked the unrest, he predicts. "Cars burning in Paris will act as a wake-up call to people who live there," such as government ministers, he adds.

Where that debate will lead, however, is less clear, he says. "It will be terribly booby-trapped by the presidential race" Mr. Parodi warns, referring to the likelihood that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy will use the issue to jockey for position ahead of presidential elections in 2007.

Mr. Sarkozy, a blunt speaking, energetic man, has drawn fire even from cabinet colleagues for his threats to "Karcher-ize" the "scum" in the suburbs, referring to a well known brand of industrial high-pressure cleaner. But he has not backed down, promising in an opinion piece published in the daily "Le Monde" this weekend that "we will no longer tolerate 'no-go' zones where organized crime and mafia dealing reign."

Sarkozy will take comfort from an opinion poll released Sunday showing that 57 percent of French voters have a "very good" or "fairly good" impression of him, even though they are almost equally divided over whether he has been effective in his fight against insecurity.

The interior minister has attracted wide media coverage of his nightly trips to the trouble zones, rallying police and fire department officers.

Mr. de Villepin on the other hand has remained in his office, holding almost continuous meetings with his cabinet, young people, local government officials from the violence-plagued districts, and Muslim religious leaders, as he seeks a solution to the crisis.

Meanwhile Mr. Chirac, who won the presidency in 1995 on promises to heal France's "social fracture," and earned reelection in 2002 with a pledge to end insecurity, has remained out of sight.

After meeting the prime minister last week, members of the bipartisan "French Forum of Mayors for Urban Security," issued a statement urging that "all the lessons be learned from these riots, both about the failures of urban policy and the organization of public services" in under-privileged districts.

"Order must be restored, but messages of hope are needed very quickly for those who are suffering," added Manuel Valls, the Socialist mayor of Evry, a southern Paris suburb.

Government ministers point out that the current administration's urban renovation program foresees the destruction and reconstruction of 250,000 public housing units by 2011, along with the renovation of another 40,000.

Opposition critics complain that the conservative government, which won office in 2002, has cut back on Socialist policies such as community policing initiatives, and cut funds for social projects. The government cut from this year's budget 310 million euros ($370 million) destined for the poorest suburbs, they point out.

It is clear, however, that the problems of the ghettos have resisted attempts by both left-wing and right-wing governments to solve them. "For 20 years, urban policy has been plugging holes but has not resolved the fundamental problem of integrating" North African immigrants and their descendants into French society, Secretary of State for Local Government Brice Hortefeux told French radio on Sunday.

"We will find a way out of this with determination and firmness," he pledged. "But I don't know how long it will take."