PARIS – France was returning to an "almost normal situation" with arson attacks vastly diminishing around the country after nearly three weeks of unrest, police said Wednesday, hours before a Senate vote on extending a state of emergency.
National police said 163 vehicles were torched overnight, down from 215 the previous night — a continuing downward drop. Most violence was centered in the provinces with only 27 vehicles torched in the Paris region, compared to 60 a night earlier.
A total of 8,973 vehicles have been set afire since the violence erupted. At the height of unrest, youths burned 1,408 vehicles across France in one night, on Nov. 6.
Some 10,600 police remained deployed to counter the violence, which included an arson attack early Wednesday on the Saint-Jean-d'Ars Roman Catholic church in Romans-sur-Isere, in southeast France.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy sternly denounced the attack.
"Our indignation must be total and absolutely equal whatever the (place of worship) that is blasphemed, offended or set afire," Sarkozy told lawmakers. "These are symbols of peace and hope that are being attacked."
Several mosques also have been hit by vandals since the unrest took root on Oct. 27.
In Normandy, in western France, a curfew put in place eight days ago in a neighborhood of Evreux, where parts of a shopping center were set afire last week, was being lifted Wednesday night. The local prefecture cited a "clear improvement of the situation" to justify the decision.
The state of emergency, which also allows for day and night house searches and other actions, is one of a handful of tough tactics being used to restore calm.
Foreigners implicated in the violence are to be deported, and justice rendered for suspected troublemakers in speedy trials.
The unrest spread from the poor suburbs northeast of Paris across the country.
Several overnight arson attacks on buildings, include the church burning, were centered in a wide arc around Grenoble, in the southeast.
In Pont-Eveque, near Grenoble, youths threw bottles of acid at a town hall, police said, adding that an officer was injured while making an arrest. A Grenoble junior high school was burned.
The emergency measure, first put in place a week ago for a 12-day period, would be extended through mid-February if the Senate bill passes as expected.
The bill, passed Tuesday by the lower house, gives regional authorities extra powers the government says are needed to end the country's worst civil unrest in four decades.
The government's leftist opposition opposed the three month extension of the state of emergency and criticism was mounting among an array of groups concerned that France is compromising its values and risking to further enflame passions.
Dozens of associations that fear the measure treats residents of poor suburbs like "internal enemies" were to hold a protest later Wednesday. They planned to call, instead, for a "social state of emergency" that gives a voice to immigrants and their French offspring who often live in the suburban housing projects — on the periphery of city life and society.
A scathing commentary Wednesday in the left-leaning daily Liberation said that a state of emergency was no remedy for the social injustices, unemployment and discrimination behind the anger.
"Its extension is useless and could prove dangerous," the paper wrote. "The gravest threat is that of the subtle erosion of the fundamental principles of the Republic."
Meanwhile, an Ipsos poll published Wednesday in the weekly newsmagazine Le Point showed Sarkozy has benefited from the crisis, getting an 11-point rise in his popularity rating — at 63 percent — and making him the most popular politician.
Even President Jacques Chirac, whose popularity has plunged over the past year, got a boost of six points — to 39 percent — compared to the previous month. No margin of error was provided for the poll of 958 people.
The crisis has led to collective soul-searching about France's failure to integrate its African and Muslim minorities. Anger about high unemployment and discrimination has fanned frustration among the French-born children of immigrants.
The unrest was set off by the accidental electrocution of two teenagers as they hid from police in a power substation in the northeast Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.