Failure to quell rioting creates a crisis for France

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The Independent Online

More than 315 cars were burned overnight on Wednesday in street battles that have extended well beyond the original flashpoint of Clichy-sous-Bois - where two adolescents were accidentally electrocuted to death a week ago - to several other parts of the capital's "banlieues" with high immigrant populations.

Police said four live bullets were fired at them at La Courneuve, though none hit its mark. In the town of Antony two firebombs were hurled at a police station, and elsewhere another unmanned police station was ransacked by youths.

In Aulnay-sous-Bois - a town not far from Charles de Gaulle airport that combines some of the worst suburban squalor with areas of bourgeois gentility - a Renault dealership lay in black cinders after being torched by rioters with the loss of most of its stock of vehicles.

Passers-by and patrolling policemen were taking photographs with their mobile telephones, while further down the street - near a notorious estate known as the "City of the 3,000" - more burned-out cars littered the pavement.

"It's hard to just sit here and watch the rich people driving past in their swanky vehicles. They have everything and we have absolutely nothing," said Ziad, 20, the ringleader of a group of young men who took art in the riots.

"Sarkozy says we are like dogs. Well - we'll show him. Ever since he came to the government, life has been crap," said Abdul.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the hardline interior minister in the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, has become the bogeyman of the young rioters - who sense that they are to a winning ticket when they criticise his "provocative" use of language.

The minister has drawn widespread condemnation from the left - and distinct unease within the cabinet - for his outspoken attacks on the racaille - or scum - that he blames for introducing a culture of drugs and petty crime in the worst-affected areas of the banlieues. After an earlier incident during the summer he said crime-ridden areas should be "cleaned with a powerhose".

Last night he was back on the attack, saying that "what matters is facts not words" and claiming the violence of the last week was all "perfectly organised". "What we have been witnessing is not in the least spontaneous, and we are trying to identify the organisers ... When you have live bullets fired at the forces of law and order ... the person who does it is purely and simply a yob," he said.

M. De Villepin - who is M. Sarkozy's undeclared rival in the 2007 presidential election battle - initially had some satisfaction at his interior minister's discomfiture. But now he too is under growing criticism for letting the situation drift and failing to offer more in the way of a solution than another vague "action plan" for later this month.

"It is time to start to manage seriously what has become a serious crisis," said Le Monde newspaper.

Ministers are hoping that a mix of factors - worsening weather, the return to classes after half term and the end of Ramadan - will combine soon to bring the wave of copy-cat riots to a halt, but there is deep pessimism about the future. The banlieues have been the scene of regular outbreaks of riots for more than 15 years now - and though each peters out eventually, the next round is always worse.