The continuing unrest on Wednesday night heightened pressure on Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s government, which has promised to restore order but is battling to paper over differences between ministers over the best way to tackle the unrest.
Youths went on the rampage in nine areas in poor suburbs to the north and east of the capital, setting alight about 40 cars, two buses and dustbins, a local authority official said.
Hundreds of police were deployed to control the disturbances, which also damaged a shopping centre in Bobigny, to the northeast of Paris, and to at least one primary school.
Unrest was sparked in Clichy-sous-Bois last week after two teenagers were electrocuted while apparently fleeing police during a local disturbance.
It has since spread to other areas in the Parisian suburbs, forcing itself to the top of the government’s agenda and prompting Villepin to cancel a trip to Canada on Wednesday.
Media attention on the unrest has been intense because it highlighted the bitter rivalry between Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of 2007 presidential elections, particularly after Sarkozy called the protesting youths “scum”.
The violence has exposed the anger in France’s poor suburbs, some of them ghettos where police hesitate to venture despite evidence of being fertile terrain for Islamic extremists and criminal activity.
Late on Wednesday, young people threw rocks at police in six suburbs in the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris that includes Clichy, police said. About a dozen cars burned in the Le Blanc-Mesnil suburb, and residents – some in bathrobes and slippers – poured into the streets to watch.
President Jacques Chirac told a weekly cabinet meeting that “the law must be applied firmly” but “in a spirit of dialogue and respect”.
The violence has cast doubt on whether France has been successful in integrating its large immigrant communities. France’s Muslim population – an estimated five million – is Western Europe’s largest.
Immigrants and their French-born children often complain of police harassment and of being refused jobs, housing and other opportunities.
Eric, a 22-year-old in Clichy-sous-Bois born in France to Moroccan parents, said police target young people with dark skin. He said that he has been unable to find full-time work for two years and that the riots were a demonstration of suburban solidarity.
“People are joining together to say we’ve had enough,” he said, refusing to give his surname.
“French society is … increasingly unequal, increasingly segregated, and increasingly divided along ethnic and racial lines,” sociologist Manuel Boucher said.