PARIS – Violence in France fell sharply overnight, the police chief said Thursday, one day after the government toughened its stance by imposing emergency measures and ordering deportations of foreigners involved in riots that have raged for two weeks.
In the past two nights, there was a notable decline in the number of car burnings — a barometer of the intensity of the country's worst civil unrest in nearly four decades.
National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said there was a "very sharp drop" in violence overnight. While youths have been battling riot police with rocks and firebombs, "there were practically no clashes with police," he said.
The government ordered a 12-day state of emergency that went into effect on Wednesday in an effort to quell the rioting. And Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said local authorities had been told to deport foreigners convicted so far for their roles.
A French anti-racism group, SOS-Racisme, called the measure illegal. The group's president said he had asked France's highest administrative body, the Council of State, to intervene.
"Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal is illegal," Dominique Sopo said.
SOS-Racisme said it considers Sarkozy's measure a mass deportation, while French law requires that each expulsion be studied on a case-by-case basis. The body has 48 hours to respond.
Police detained 203 people overnight, national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said. More than 2,000 people have been detained since the violence broke out. A municipal police officer and a firefighter were injured.
The violence began Oct. 27 among youths in the northeastern Paris region of Seine-Saint-Denis angry over the accidental deaths of two teenagers, one of Mauritanian descent and the other an immigrant from Tunisia. But they grew into a nationwide insurrection marked by extensive arson and clashes with police.
The emergency decree 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. For much of France — including Paris — the state of emergency had no perceptible effect.
But the fact that such extraordinary measures were needed has prompted national soul-searching about France's failure to integrate its African and Muslim minorities, seen as a key reason behind the rioting. Rioters were made up mainly of the French-born children of immigrants from France's former colonies in North and West Africa.
President Jacques Chirac acknowledged problems with a lack of equality.
"Whatever our origins, we are all the children of the republic and we can all expect the same rights," he said Thursday in just his second public comments since the rioting began. "Everyone has a right to respect and equal opportunities."
Arsonists attacked again overnight, the 14th straight day of violence. However, car burnings fell again overnight to 482 from 617 the previous night, Hamon said.
The peak in car arsons was overnight between Sunday and Monday, when 1,408 vehicles were torched. The number has steadily dropped every night since then.
This "is an encouraging sign that does not, however, diminish the police effort," Hamon said.
Overnight, vandalism at two power stations caused blackouts in parts of Lyon, France's second-largest city, police said.
Vandals set 11 cars ablaze and rammed a burning car into a primary school in the southern city of Toulouse, damaging its entrance, police said. Another school was set on fire in the eastern city of Belfort.
Violence, albeit on a much smaller scale, spilled across France's borders to Belgium, where rioters burned cars for a fifth straight night. Fifteen vehicles were torched, but the government said the attacks were isolated and could not be compared to the French riots.
France's emergency decree paved the way for possible curfews in Paris, its suburbs and more than 30 other cities and towns nationwide if officials feel they are needed. By Wednesday evening, only a few municipalities and regions imposed them; Paris had not.
In Nice, Cannes and 19 other towns in the southeast, minors were forbidden from being outdoors between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. without adult supervision. Certain bars in Nice and another town were ordered closed during those hours for 10 days.
There have been no direct clashes between youths and police in the Riviera but unrest that started in the area on Friday had persisted in some towns for four nights.
Sarkozy, who previously inflamed passions by referring to suburban troublemakers as "scum," said 120 foreigners have been convicted in connection with the violence. He ordered local authorities to expel them.
Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen said French nationals of immigrant backgrounds should be stripped of their French citizenship and sent "back to their country of origin" if they committed crimes.