Rioters went on the rampage in nine areas in poor suburbs on Thursday ringing the French capital to the north and the east, setting alight about 40 cars, two buses, and dustbins, as well as damaging at least one school and a shopping centre.

Angry youths in hooded tops threw stones at police in riot gear. The media said shots were fired in a northern suburb.

Three firemen were lightly injured during the night, a spokesman said, adding the fire brigade had received more than 100 telephone calls reporting burning cars and dustbins in the suburbs.

Local officials said they would provide information on any further injured people and possible arrests later on Thursday.

Hundreds of police were deployed to control the disturbances, with some units diverted from a football match.

'Civil war'

One trade union representing policemen described the unrest as a "civil war" and called on Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to impose a curfew in areas affected by the violence to ensure it did not spiral out of control.

The unrest in the northern and eastern suburbs, heavily populated by North African and Black African minorities, has been fuelled by frustration among youths over their failure to get jobs and recognition in French society.

The disturbances have highlighted the bitter rivalry between Villepin and Sarkozy ahead of presidential elections in 2007, particularly after Sarkozy called the protesting youths "scum".

Dozens of vehicles were set
ablaze as part of street fighting 

Equal Opportunities Minister Azouz Begag openly criticised Sarkozy while Villepin took a calculated swipe on Wednesday at the strong language used by the interior minister when he stressed the need to avoid stigmatising such areas.

Social Cohesion Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said the French should not develop a one-sided image of the suburbs.

"One must not think for one second that this is the life of these neighbourhoods," Borloo told France 2 television.

"They are an integral part of our country. It is in these neighbourhoods that most companies are being founded."

Unrest first broke out in Clichy-sous-Bois last week after two teenagers were electrocuted while apparently fleeing police during a local disturbance, and it has since spread to other areas in the Parisian suburbs.