France on New Year alert for renewed bout of riots

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Sales of petrol in cans have been banned in Paris and other French cities as France prepares for a possible New Year's Eve resurgence of last month's suburban riots.

Violence and car burning on 31 December has become a macabre tradition in France in recent years. The authorities fear that multiracial gangs of youths in poor suburbs may use the festivities tonight to resume the violent confrontations which destroyed 12,000 cars and scores of public buildings in November.

New Year's Eve is one of the nights when young people from the deprived suburbs traditionally pour into Paris, taunting police and causing minor scuffles. More than 4,500 police officers and gendarmes will be mobilised to protect the capital, especially the Avenue des Champs Elysées, where large crowds of Parisians and tourists are expected to gather to welcome 2006. Although the authorities have said they have no firm warnings of any plans to foment violence, there will be a heavy police presence at the suburban stations of the Metro and the RER regional train network. Any groups of youths heading towards central Paris will be watched closely and denied access to the city if necessary.

All sales of petrol in cans have been banned in Paris and many other areas of France in an attempt to prevent a reprise of the orgy of random car burning which marked the riots in November. On New Year's Eve last year, 330 cars were set on fire across France. This compares with an average of 100 cars burnt on a "normal" day in the country. At the height of last month's riots, 2,400 cars were burnt in one night.

The Paris Préfecture de Police said its officers would be ordered to avoid unnecessary confrontation but would be expected "to dissuade and repress" all acts of violence. This might involve taking pre-emptive action if necessary.

The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was blamed by some for provoking last month's riots by describing violent, suburban gangs as "scum", will take personal command of the security arrangements in the capital. He will be spending most of tonight in the Centre Opérationnel, incident control room, at the ministry. M. Sarkozy is expected to make a public appearance (televised, no doubt) at a place of heightened tension some time during the evening.

The November riots were provoked by the deaths of two teenagers who had climbed into an electricity sub-station to try to escape a police check.

Since the violence subsided, France has examined its national conscience on the racism, social exclusion and poor education faced by many young people living in the multiracial banlieues, or suburbs, of French towns and cities. The riots have also led to a new political awareness in the suburbs themselves. According to a survey conducted by the newspaper Le Monde, town halls in poor suburbs have been besieged by young people wanting to register to vote before the next presidential election in 2007.