VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France – French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday that rioters who shot at police would be brought to justice as violence that rocked Paris suburbs appeared to ebb.
It was the first time Sarkozy, who had just returned from China, entered the fray since the rioting broke out Sunday night. The violence, which Sarkozy called "unacceptable," eased Tuesday night after police were deployed in force and quickly rounded up youths lobbing Molotov cocktails and setting cars ablaze.
The violence has drawn comparisons with riots that raged through suburbs nationwide in 2005, and has shown that anger still smolders in poor housing projects where many Arabs, blacks and other minorities live largely isolated from the rest of society.
"We will find the shooters," and they will "be brought to account before justice," Sarkozy said after meeting with a wounded police captain hospitalized in Eaubonne north of Paris.
The violence erupted Sunday after the deaths of two minority teens whose motorscooter collided with a police car in Villiers-le-Bel, a blue-collar town on Paris' northern edge.
Residents claimed the officers left without helping the teens. Prosecutor Marie-Therese de Givry denied that, saying police stayed on the scene until firefighters arrived.
Sarkozy described the teens' deaths as "distressing." But he added: "Shooting at police has no link to this incident."
Sarkozy met with families of the two teens and told them that a judicial inquiry had been opened into their deaths, their lawyer, Jean-Pierre Mignard, said after the meeting. Sarkozy also had a security meeting with his top ministers.
While cars were set ablaze for a third night Tuesday, officials said the violence was less intense than the two previous nights.
Some 20 police officers were lightly injured, down from more than 80 the night before, said Patrice Ribeiro of the Synergie police union.
Some 138 cars were burned around France overnight Tuesday, which Ribeiro called almost "normal." Police say as many as 100 cars are burned every night in scattered incidents around the country.
Youths lobbed Molotov cocktails and stones at police in Villiers-le-Bel but no firearms were used, Ribeiro said — unlike Monday, when rioters used shotguns raising fears the clashes could turn deadly.
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the overall situation was "calm." Still, she said on Europe-1 radio, police presence would remain reinforced "as long as necessary."
She said 39 people were arrested in the Paris region Tuesday night. In the town of Verneil-sur-Seine west of Paris, eight people were arrested after trying to set fire to a bus, Ribeiro said.
Sarkozy was interior minister, in charge of police, during the 2005 riots and took a hard line against the violence. Even before those riots, he angered many in housing projects when he called delinquents there "scum."
The violence two years ago also started in the suburbs of northern Paris, when two teens were electrocuted in a power substation while hiding from police.
There have long been tensions between France's largely white police force and ethnic minorities in poor neighborhoods. Despite decades of problems and heavy state investments to improve housing and create jobs, the depressed projects that ring Paris are a world apart from the tourist attractions of the French capital. Police speak of no-go zones where they and firefighters fear to patrol.