Jobless riots rock French cities

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Discontent over high levels of unemployment and the continuing recession erupted into violence during New Year celebrations in France.

In the eastern city of Strasbourg, youths set fire to more than 50 cars and set off home-made bombs in a rampage that police described as the worst the city had seen in a decade.

In Paris a group of unemployed and homeless people occupied 14 job centres in a protest against high unemployment. Local politicians and other activists joined them in a show of solidarity.

About 60 homeless activists also briefly occupied the lobby of the Hotel Royal Monceau in Paris on New Year's eve, leaving peacefully after scornfully rejecting a payment of 10,000 francs (pounds 1,000) offered them by the hotel manager.

The group moved to Fouquet's restaurant on the Champs Elysees, leaving only after gaining a promise that 40 meals would be delivered to jobless people occupying a social services agency since Tuesday. Union officials said additional national protests were planned for Monday and Wednesday.

In the capital's suburbs, stones were thrown at fire-fighters trying to put out the blazes set in cars in the Yvelines and Seine-Saint-Denis departments just outside Paris.

The rioters smashed telephone boxes and bus shelters and set off home- made bombs.

Twelve people aged between 13 and 20 were in custody for questioning yesterday. A total of 53 vehicles were set on fire, 21 phone boxes smashed and 32 bus shelters damaged, said Prefect Patrice Magnier.

One firefighter said that young people had thrown stones and firecrackers at emergency workers. "For us, the night was an absolute nightmare," he said.

Four hundred riot police and 200 firefighters were called out during the night to control the crowds and battle the fires. Three schools were hit by home-made fire bombs and other explosive devices. A small home- made bomb blew up outside a sports centre in western Strasbourg, shattering windows. Police also seized numerous unused fire-bombs.

President Jacques Chirac, in his annual New Year message,denounced growing violence in France and urged citizens to help police control the problem.