Published November 14, 2005
PARIS – Rioters pelted police with stones in the historic heart of Lyon, and youths rammed a burning car into a center for retirees in southern France in a 17th night of urban violence. Paris was calm, despite fears of a rampage in the capital.
Across the country, the situation appeared quieter Sunday, with fewer car-torchings — a barometer of the unrest.
Youths burned 374 vehicles nationwide, down from 502 the night before. Police took 212 people into custody overnight. Attackers threw a firebomb at a mosque in Lyon, but the device caused no damage.
National Police Chief Michel Gaudin said there had been a "major lull" in the unrest.
If it continues, "things could return to normal very quickly," he said at a news conference Sunday.
Unrest has weakened in intensity since the government declared a state-of-emergency Wednesday, empowering local authorities to invoke exceptional security measures such as curfews for minors.
Neighboring Belgium registered its worst night in a week of attacks on vehicles apparently inspired by French events, with 29 cars, trucks and buses torched around the country, the government said Sunday. Youths in the Dutch city of Rotterdam also set four cars on fire overnight.
In France, the violence started in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois on Oct. 27 when about 100 youths rioted to protest the accidental deaths of two Muslim teens who were electrocuted while hiding from police in an electricity substation.
The turmoil quickly spread across France in housing projects plagued by unemployment and alienation. The unrest has forced France to confront its failure to integrate minorities and the anger simmering among its large African and Arab communities.
Seventy-one percent of French people do not believe President Jacques Chirac can solve the social problems that fueled the riots, according to a poll published Sunday by the Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
However, nearly a quarter think far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen can. Le Pen has seized on the violence to promote his National Front party's "zero immigration" platform.
More than half of those polled expressed confidence in Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, who has been accused of inflaming the violence by calling troublemakers "scum," said foreigners involved in the unrest could be deported starting early this week.
Most of France's unrest has been concentrated in the disadvantaged suburbs around large cities. Calls for "violent action" Saturday night in Paris were posted on Internet blogs and sent in text messages to cell phones.
Thousands of police guarded the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees avenue and train stations. Only one incident was reported — a fire set at a gas station, Gaudin said.
In the southeastern city of Lyon, police fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing youths in a historic square, Place Bellecour. It was the first time in the unrest that youths and police clashed in a major French city.
Just hours earlier, regional authorities had imposed a weekend curfew on Lyon, France's third-largest city, that barred youths under 18 from being outside without adult supervision late at night.
An overnight firebomb attack on Lyon's Grand Mosque left traces of gasoline on the wall, but the device did not explode, the prefecture of the Rhone region said.
An investigation was opened. It was unclear whether the attack was part of a backlash related to the attacks. Two Molotov cocktails were tossed into a mosque in Carpentras last week, slightly damaging the building's porch.
In separate incidents Saturday night, youths in Carpentras rammed a burning car into the side of a center for retirees, and youths broke into a school and set a classroom on fire, the regional government said.
In the northern Paris suburb of La Courneuve, a police officer was injured after he was hit with a metal ball dropped from an apartment building. Arsonists also set an electronics store on fire Saturday night in Blagnac, on the outskirts of Toulouse, the regional government said.
Some 40 towns, suburbs and smaller cities have imposed curfews on minors to clamp down on the violence. Paris police took the exceptional step of banning all public gatherings that could "provoke or encourage disorder" from 10 a.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Sunday, and Lyon followed suit in some central neighborhoods.