Riots test new French government: The deaths of three youths in 10 days has brought fury at police methods

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FRANCE'S new conservative government has had an early taste of what will probably be its most explosive problem - unrest in the poor, immigrant- dominated districts of its cities.

With the deaths of three youths over the past 10 days at police hands, protests against police methods have marred the first days in office of Charles Pasqua, the ebullient Gaullist Interior Minister who gained a name for toughness when he held the job under the first left- right cohabitation from 1986 to 1988. It is a reputation which Mr Pasqua, who has promised harsh measures against policemen who commit serious errors, is trying to shake off.

Despite a ban ordered by Mr Pasqua on protests over the weekend, youths in Paris's 18th arrondissement attacked the police station where a 17-year-old immigrant of Zairean origin was shot dead last Tuesday. A police officer has been charged with murder in the case and his superior officer has been suspended. The accused man said he was threatening the boy, who had been arrested for shop-lifting, with his gun when it went off accidentally. French police are forbidden by law from handling firearms inside police stations.

The incident has led to nightly demonstrations outside the police station of Les Grandes Carrieres. Over the weekend, bands of youths roamed the streets smashing telephone booths and looting shops.

In Tourcoing near Lille, meanwhile, 200 youths attacked police after a 17-year-old of North African origin died from a head wound sustained when a policeman fired at him during a car 'rodeo' on wasteland on Wednesday. On 3 April a young tyre-thief was killed in the alpine town of Chambery after the policeman who was trying to arrest him opened fire. Both officers have been suspended.

The incidents have focused attention on police methods and on the ability of the government of Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, to handle a crisis. Two years ago, his Socialist predecessors had to deal with rioting in under-privileged suburbs after a young man was killed. The fear is that the unrest will make for a violent summer. The situation prompted an unusual Easter Sunday announcement that the National Assembly would debate urban policy at the end of this month.

In France, the unrest is known as a problem of the banlieues or suburbs, because it is most acute in the bleak dormitory towns built to house returning settlers from North Africa by the original Gaullist government in the 1960s. In some places, as in Paris's 18th arrondissement and Marseilles, it is also an inner-city phenomenon. The plight of youth in such districts has worsened with the rise in unemployment, which crossed the 3 million mark just as the new government took over after the right's landslide election win two weeks ago.

Mr Pasqua now has the task of supervising police work and cracking down on crime while the popular centrist Simone Veil, who has the difficult Ministry for Towns among her portfolios, will have to deal with the long-term social implications.