France declares state of emergency

Although the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, stressed after a special cabinet meeting that the tough new powers would be used "parsimoniously", there was widespread criticism , from both centre-right politicians, and left-wing mayors who threatened to flout the curfews declared by regional officials.

Despite the curfews, just over 600 cars were burned in unrest overnight in France, although that was about half as many as on Monday night, said Claude Guerin, M. Sarkozy's chief of staff. The number of protesters detained is beleived to have risen from about 150 to more than 200.

In a parallel move to the introduction of curfews, the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, announced a range of new social policies aimed at balancing the repressive measures against the mainly teenage protesters who have clashed with police in riots that have left at least one person dead in France's worst unrest in decades as he acknowledged the impact of the riots on the country.

"France is wounded," he said. "It cannot recognise itself in its streets and devastated areas in these outbursts of hatred and violence which destroy and kill."

But M. de Villepin was criticised for a lack of sensitivity in invoking a 1955 emergency law used during the Algerian war of independence. Many of the youths living in the troubled suburban estates are of north African origin, and the Algerian war has been a taboo subject for decades in France. Human rights organisations and leading opposition politicians said the reminder of the conflict at a time when France was again confronting violence from its community of north African origin was unwise.

Jack Lang, a former Socialist minister, noted that the law had a particular connotation: "Was it necessary to use this arsenal, which is linked to the colonial wars, to apply it to neighbourhoods where the children and grandchildren of the colonial period live?"

Since it was applied in Algeria, the emergency law has only been used once more, in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia in 1985. It contains provisions for two-month jail sentences or a fine for those who breach the curfew, and gives police the power to search houses.

M. Sarkozy explained that the state of emergency can only be extended beyond 12 days if approved by parliament. Amiens became the first city to enforce the overnight curfew for youths aged under 16 last night, and more are expected to follow. A mayor in the Paris region had jumped the gun by announcing a curfew in Le Raincy on Monday night, but it was not enforced by police.

M. de Villepin announced the crackdown, including police reinforcements, in a television interview on Monday night in an attempt to halt the burning of property by gangs of youths on the estates, which followed the electrocution of two teenagers outside Paris on 27 October.

But as he spoke, fresh rioting broke out in Toulouse on the 12th consecutive night of rioting. Police said that although the violence had diminished on Monday night in the Paris region, 1,200 cars were burnt across the country before dawn and 330 people had been arrested.

M. de Villepin defended the policy during a debate in the National Assembly, saying: "It is the moment of truth for the republic."

Although the ruling UMP party hailed the curfews as "an exceptional measure for an exceptional situation" the centre-right mayor of Drancy, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, said in his region outside Paris the situation had already begun to ease without "extreme measures".

M. Sarkozy's inflammatory comments about "hosing down" estates to clean them of "scum" are widely seen as having contributed to the riots. However, his popularity does not appear to have suffered and President Jacques Chirac is unlikely to fire M. Sarkozy at this stage, to avoid creating the impression of giving in to the rioters.

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