French assembly backs emergency

France's lower house of parliament has cleared the first step for an extension in emergency powers to quell an unprecedented wave of urban unrest, after the prime minister toured a riot-hit suburb.

    Almost 8500 vehicles have been destroyed in the riots

    A majority of 346 deputies voted on Tuesday in favour of the bill drawn up by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's government, and 148 against.

    Villepin had told parliament disorder of "unprecedented gravity" justified extending emergency powers for three months.

    "The situation remains serious in a great number of districts. We cannot accept that more than 200 cars burn each night," he said, adding that nearly three weeks of rioting had destroyed 8500 vehicles and 100 public buildings.

    About 2800 people had been detained and 600 jailed, he said.

    The Senate, or upper house, debates the law on Wednesday.

    Passage of the law seems certain because the ruling centre-right party dominates the two chambers of parliament.

    The government approved emergency powers including curfews last week that went into force on 9 November for 12 days, although only few areas have imposed curfews.

    National malaise

    Earlier, Villepin travelled to Aulnay-sous-Bois northeast of Paris, a day after President Jacques Chirac said in a national address that the worst civil unrest in almost 40 years pointed to a deep national malaise.

    The prime minister met local residents, teachers and business leaders during the previously unannounced visit, his first to an area hit by rioting by youths who feel excluded from mainstream society.

    Villepin (L) said the disorder
    was of unprecedented gravity

    "During our meeting this morning I heard a lot of people who really want to make progress, to get ahead, realise their projects, find a job. They should be helped," Villepin said.

    The unrest began on 27 October with the accidental deaths of two youths apparently fleeing police but quickly engulfed tough suburbs in towns around France, although police said on Tuesday only 215 vehicles had been destroyed, an "almost normal" level.

    France's main insurance industry body, the FFSA, said first estimates put the cost of the riots at 200 million euros, including 20 million euros ($23.3 million) for damaged vehicles.

    Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, launching the emergency powers debate, said 75% to 80% of those arrested in rioting were already known to police, adding there was a clear link between unrest and zones targeted in a crackdown on crime gangs.

    Court sentenced

    Sarkozy said procedures were under way to expel 10 foreigners condemned for having participated in the riots.

    In other news, a court in northern Arras sentenced a 20-year-old man to four years in prison on Tuesday for having set fire to a furniture shop during the riots. Damage was estimated at some 12 million euros, and 16 people lost their jobs due to the fire.

    Chirac said the protests reflected
    an identity crisis in France

    "I wanted to do like the others. That's all," the man said.

    In his televised address on Monday, Chirac said the violent protests, linked to racism and unemployment by youths of African and Arab origin and some white youngsters, reflected deep malaise and "an identity crisis".

    But in his first direct address to the nation on the violence, Chirac rejected "positive discrimination" that would favour minorities for jobs.

    He also announced the creation of a voluntary task force to help youths find work, but critics said he had proposed nothing new.

    Government woes

    The riots have added to the woes of the government as it is struggling to create jobs and stimulate growth.

    On Tuesday, several trade unions representing French railway workers announced a strike over pay and working conditions for 21 November.

    Villepin last week announced he would restore 100 million euros in axed credits to local associations in the suburbs, new efforts to create jobs and unveiled plans to lower to 14 the age for failing pupils to start apprenticeships.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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