Published November 12, 2005
PARIS – Authorities stepped up security Friday and placed restrictions on some public gatherings after tip-offs from Internet and text messages suggested "violent actions" over the weekend in the French capital.
But as France marked Armistice Day commemorating the end of World War I, calls for peace in the restive poor neighborhoods of France rang out, from demonstrators in Paris to religious leaders at a Lyon-area mosque in the southeast.
Arson attacks that hopscotched around the country, destroying schools, gymnasiums, public buildings, public transport and cars, have declined in recent days, but stretched into a 16th day despite the calls for peace, with more than 400 cars torched across the country and 162 people arrested overnight into Saturday.
In the south, an attacker threw two firebombs into a mosque during Friday prayers, causing minor damage. It was not immediately clear if the attack was linked to the wider unrest.
With a state of emergency in place, several hundred people gathered Friday at the glassy Wall of Peace near the Eiffel Tower to call for an end to the unrest that erupted Oct. 27 and spread across the country.
The demonstration drew elderly Parisians and youths from its poor working-class suburbs along with curious onlookers, all engaging in heated debate over how to stem the violence and tackle the causes.
Authorities have acknowledged the roots of the problem are deep-seated, perhaps linked to the French approach to immigration which works to fit immigrants, whatever their origins, into a single mold. Soaring unemployment, poverty and discrimination are common in towns that ring the large cities of France.
"The violence of the last 15 days expresses the frustration of 30 years of denying recognition to the populations living in these neighborhoods," said Hassan Ben M'Barek, a spokesman for Suburbs Respect, which organized the demonstration.
He called on President Jacques Chirac and the government to listen to the youths, whose roots are in former French colonies of Africa, to better fight the "discrimination they suffer daily."
The mosque attack in the southern town of Carpentras drew immediate condemnation from Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The attacker was pursued by two witnesses but escaped, the regional government said.
Although it was unclear if the mosque attack was linked to the rioting, far-right politicians have used the unrest to promote anti-immigration policies, arguing that French-born children of immigrants from France's former colonies in North and West Africa have been among the rioters.
Overnight into Saturday, arsonists destroyed part of a primary school in the eastern town of Savigny-le-Temple, set two stores ablaze in Rambouillet, west of Paris, and set fire to a library inside the town hall in the western town of Angers, national police spokesman Patrick Reydy said.
The recent unrest has decreased since France imposed a state of emergency Wednesday that empowers regions to impose curfews and conduct house searches. Six regions have so far used the powers, more recently prefect Pierre Soubelet of the Landes region in the southwest.
Authorities bolstered security in Paris, deploying truckloads of riot police as Chirac rode in an open jeep down the Champs-Elysees to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to mark Armistice Day.
Paris police headquarters banned gatherings of "a nature that could provoke or encourage disorder" from 10 a.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Sunday.
"Messages distributed in the last few days over the Internet and by text messaging have called for gatherings Nov. 12 in Paris and 'violent actions,' in the words of their authors," a statement said.
National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said five people have been taken into police custody on suspicion of putting up Internet sites calling for violence.
Five police officers were placed under investigation — a step short of formal charges — in connection with the beating of a man detained in connection with the riots, a prosecutor said on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
Two officers allegedly participated in the beating, which was filmed and broadcast Thursday on France 2 television. The others were witnesses.
The French anti-racism group MRAP, which opposes the curfew and the state of emergency, said it still planned to demonstrate against the measures Saturday in Paris.
"We have seen a continued drop beyond Paris, but persistence near the capital," national police spokesman Patrick Hamon said, suggesting concern that percolating unrest could again explode.
The unrest erupted after the accidental electrocutions of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois, northeast of Paris, hiding out in a power substation to escape police.
A badly burned companion, Muhttin Altun, told a judge the teens were fleeing a police patrol because they did not have their identity papers and feared not arriving home in time for breaking of the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the boy's lawyer, Jean-Pierre Mignard, said Friday.
From a mosque in Saint-Fons, in the Rhone region near Lyon, the prayer leader, Moncef Bahloul, read out a call for peace Friday issued by representatives of the local Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant communities.
"To the young tempted by destructive violence, we say: violence is not the language to express your difficulties."