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France president pledges public security focus after riots

French President Francois Hollande faces the challenge of dealing with crime and security problems in gritty suburbs. He vows to quell the violence.

August 14, 2012|By Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times
  • French police take position in the northern city of Amiens, where rioting left 16 officers injured and buildings damaged or destroyed.
French police take position in the northern city of Amiens, where rioting… (Guillaume Clement, European…)

PARIS — French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that his government would use "all means" necessary to quell violence after overnight rioting in northern France left more than a dozen police officers injured and several buildings damaged or destroyed.

Hollande, who was elected in May, pledged that public security would be a priority for his fledgling Socialist administration.

French police said rioting youths opened fire on them amid violent clashes Monday evening on the outskirts of Amiens, troubled by high rates of unemployment and crime. The rioting followed outbreaks of violence last week in the southern city of Toulouse, when about 150 patrol and riot officers were sent to suburban housing estates after reports of fighting between gangs of youths and bursts of machine-gun fire.

The poor housing estates around French cities have long been a wellspring for clashes between the authorities and disaffected youths. The suburbs, known as banlieues, are home to many families with immigrant roots, where the numbers of failing schools and jobless young people are especially high. Some housing projects around Paris, the scene of far more widespread rioting in 2005, have become almost no-go areas for police.

Like his predecessors, Hollande — who on Tuesday marked the 100th day since his election — is facing the challenge of how to deal with such crime and security problems. Amiens was among 15 "security priority zones" announced by Interior Minister Manuel Valls this month, referring to areas in which "acts of delinquency and incivility were structurally deep-rooted" and which had become havens for the "black market economy, the trafficking of drugs and arms" as well as violence, theft, gangs and public nuisances.

During the overnight clashes in Amiens, 16 police officers were reported injured and several buildings damaged or destroyed. Fire and police personnel were prevented from entering the area by barricades of burning cars and garbage cans in the city, about 60 miles north of Paris.

Several drivers were reportedly injured when rioters stole their cars. Local officials said the estimated cost of the damage ran into millions of dollars. However, no arrests were reported.

Valls, who was booed during a visit to Amiens on Tuesday, said France could "not accept" such violence.

"They attack police officers with firearms, burn public equipment that is needed by the people of these working-class areas and make people afraid," Valls said.

One local official told journalists that although there were frequent outbreaks of violence in Amiens, the city had "never known incidents of such gravity." The official said dozens of vehicles and at least three public buildings had been damaged. One, a school, was ransacked and partially burned. A sports center was destroyed.

Rioters set fire to about 60 garbage bins Monday night in an attempt to hamper police and firefighters. The windows of a police station were smashed.

Gilles Demailly, the Socialist mayor of Amiens, described the trouble spot as a "scene of desolation" and said tension had been mounting in the area "for months."

"There are burned garbage cans and cars everywhere. We have regular incidents, but it's been years since I've known a night so violent and with so much destruction," Demailly said.

About 150 officers were mobilized, along with a helicopter and units of special riot police. When law enforcement teams fired tear gas and rubber bullets, the rioters responded with gunfire and a hail of stones, bottles and other objects.

"We found seven bullet casings of .12-caliber, so we know they were using guns to fire against the police," Marc Richez of the police union Synergie Officiers told reporters.

One resident told Le Parisien newspaper that "it was like being in a western."

The violence first erupted Sunday when police on a routine patrol clashed with about 60 youths. The police used tear gas and fired soft rubber balls into the crowd, a response some residents criticized as "excessive."

An extra 100 police officers were sent to Amiens on Tuesday night.

"The state will mobilize all its means to combat these violent acts," Hollande said. "Security is not only a priority for us, it is an obligation."

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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