Support for Sarkozy as French rioting subsides

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The Independent Online

A tense calm returned to most riot-torn areas of France at the weekend, despite skirmishes in the centre of Lyons, and Molotov cocktail attacks on two mosques.

A threatened mass assault on central Paris by multi-racial, suburban gangs failed to materialise but the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was booed and jostled by a small group of youths on the Champs-Elysées.

There were suggestions yesterday that the minister's security cordon had been left surprisingly weak ­ possibly to "punish" M. Sarkozy for taking a hard line with police officers filmed beating a suspect last week. By the commonly accepted barometer of nightly car burnings, Saturday night and Sunday morning were the calmest since the riots started to spread.

"Only" 374 vehicles were torched nationwide, compared to 1,400 at the peak of the riots last weekend.

There were, however, serious skirmishes and arson attacks at several towns and cities in the south of the country, including Lyons, Carpentras and Toulouse.

In Lyons yesterday, large gatherings were banned by the regional authorities after Molotov cocktails were hurled at mosques in the city on Saturday night, and in Carpentras on Friday night. Authorities are investigating whether these were attempts by ultra-right groups to stir the embers of the riots and plunge France into outright racial conflict. The youth gangs, who have been rioting for 17 days, reflect the racial mixture of France's deprived and crime-ridden suburbs.

Police are also investigating the possibility that the two attacks on mosques ­ in which no one was injured ­ were carried out by militant elements among the mainly Muslim rioters.

If it was provocation, it worked. Carpentras, in the hills east of the Rhone valley, was quiet before Friday night's mosque attack by a hooded youth on a scooter.

On Saturday night, there were several "revenge" attacks in the town, including the ramming of a disused old people's home with a burning car and the wrecking of a nursery school.

Even before the attack on Lyons' grand mosque on Saturday night, the city was tense. There were running fights in the centre on Saturday evening between police and suburban gangs ­ apparently joined by local " anarchists". Despite this, the national chief of police, Michel Gaudin, spoke of a "significant lull" in the violence. He predicted " things could now return to normal quickly".

The longer-term consequences of the riots are harder to forecast. The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, has promised a programme of new investment in France's 750 poor suburbs and a controversial plan to take disaffected youths out of school at 14 to find them "apprenticeships".

The deeper background causes of the violence ­ the hidden racial barriers in French society; the belief of many suburban youths that they have no future in France, other than low-level crime ­ will take much longer to address.

In the meantime, the great political victim of the riots has been President Jacques Chirac. A weekend poll in the Journal du Dimanche suggested that only 29 per cent of French people thought he had anything to offer to solve the violence. M. Sarkozy and M. de Villepin ­ likely rivals for the presidency in 2007 ­ topped the poll with 53 per cent and 52 per cent.

* The EU has offered France ¤50m (£33m) to help tackle the problems. The EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said the main problem behind the unrest was youth unemployment, and that the challenge of integrating immigrants occurred in many European cities.