The number of cars torched overnight - 1295 across France - was the highest since the unrest began on 27 October, France-Info radio and other French media reported.

Police did not immediately confirm the figure after earlier putting the number at 918. The night before, 900 vehicles were burned throughout the country.

The count did not include the shops, gymnasiums, nursery schools and other targets attacked by marauding gangs of youths around the country.

Police also made 186 arrests nationwide.

The violence had begun in a low-income suburb, northeast of Paris, after the deaths of two teenagers accidentally electrocuted as they hid from police in a power sub-station.

Paris damage

Early on Sunday, arsonists reportedly struck inside the well-guarded French capital.

At least three vehicles were set
alight on a Paris street

Police said three cars were damaged by fire from petrol bombs in the Place de la Republique neighbourhood, or 3rd district, northeast of City Hall and near the historic Marais district.

On the Paris street, where the three cars were set alight, residents spoke on Sunday morning of hearing a loud explosion and then seeing flames shooting into the sky.

"We were very afraid," said Annie Partouche, 55, who had watched the cars burning from her apartment window and said she lined the window ledges with wet towels to keep dense smoke from getting in.

The three burned cars had been removed by Sunday morning, but the facade of a nearby building was blackened by soot.

It was not immediately clear whether anything other than vehicles was targeted in Paris.

Businesses attacked

In the town of Evreux, 100km west of Paris in rural Normandy, arsonists laid waste to at least 50 vehicles, shops and businesses at a shopping centre, a post office and two schools, said Patrick Hamon, spokesman for the national police.

Nursery schools, shops and a
gymnasium have been torched

Five police officers and three firefighters were injured battling the Evreux blazes, Hamon said.

About 2300 police officers poured into the Paris region to bolster security on what was expected to be a restive Saturday night.

For the second night in a row, a helicopter equipped with spotlights and video cameras to track bands of marauding youths combed the poor, heavily immigrant Seine-Saint-Denis region, northeast of Paris, where the violence has been concentrated.

Small teams of police were deployed to chase youths speeding from one attack to another in cars and on motorbikes.

Anger

The violence is forcing France to confront long-simmering anger in its suburbs, where many Africans and their French-born children live on society's margins, struggling with high unemployment, poor housing, racial discrimination, crime and lack of opportunities.

Many Africans and their French-
born children lack opportunities

Such suburban blight has fed frustrations and a sense of being disconnected for many of those dwelling on the rims of big French cities.

Arson attacks were reported in the Paris region and cities to the north, south, east and west, many normally known for their calm, such as the cultural bastion of Avignon in southern France and the resort cities of Nice and Cannes, where cars were torched, a police officer said.

Arson was also reported in Nantes, in the southwest, the Lille region in the north and Saint-Dizier, in the Ardennes region, east of Paris.

In the eastern city of Strasbourg, 18 cars were set alight in full daylight, police there said.

Dozens of vehicles, two gymnasiums and at least three classrooms were set ablaze in the Seine-Saint-Denis region, outside Paris, local officials said.

'Copycat' attacks

France-Info radio reported residents catching two 14-year-olds trying to light a fire in Drancy, northeast of Paris, and turning them over to police.

"We are not going to start militias. You would have to be everywhere"

Alain Outreman 
Acheres mayor

Hamon called the spreading arson attacks copycat acts by vandals.

Evreux, 100km west of Paris, appeared hardest hit. The number of vehicles burned was likely to rise beyond 50, Hamon said.

It was not immediately known whether the vehicles were in a car park or scattered about the city. That the shopping centre was partly burned shows that "there is a will to pillage," Hamon said.

"This has been true since the start," he added, referring to grocery and video shops and other establishments that have been set on fire.

He blamed the spreading arson on "hoodlums".

There appeared to be no coordination between separate groups in different areas, Hamon said. But within gangs, he added, youths are communicating by mobile phones or emails.

Sarkozy adamant

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy - accused of inflaming violence with tough talk and calling troublemakers "scum" - visited the hard-hit Essonne region early on Sunday to "give police support," he said.

Nicolas Sarkozy has referred to  
vandalising youth as scum

Even nursery schools have not been spared the fury of those igniting unrest.

Five classrooms of the Sleeping Beauty Nursery School in Grigny, in the Essonne region, south of Paris, went up in flames late on Saturday along with two classrooms of another school, police said.

It was at least the third nursery school set ablaze in several days.

In quiet Acheres, on the edge of the St Germain forest west of Paris, arsonists torched a nursery school late on Friday.

Mayor Alain Outreman tried to cool tempers as some residents demanded the army be deployed or suggested that citizens band together to protect neighbourhoods.

"We are not going to start militias," he said. "You would have to be everywhere."