Schools and churches burn in French towns

Schools and churches were burned in several French towns in an eleventh straight night of unrest and arson, despite words from the president that restoring order was a top priority. Police arrested nearly 150 people overnight and into Monday morning even as French President Jacques Chirac vowed to crack down on the perpetrators, who have wreaked havoc in towns in southern and eastern parts of France and in the capital Paris.

Overnight Sunday rioting spread across the nation, and into Paris proper, with a half dozen cars set on fire for the first time in the capital's upscale 17th district that stretches west from Montmartre to the Arc de Triomphe.

The list of cities attacked is growing, from Lille in the north to Rouen and Orleans in the west, to the Mediterranean cities of Nice and Cannes, to Strasbourg and Colmar in the east, with youths attacking shops, schools and a police station.

CNN correspondents have said renegade youths have turned neighborhoods into no-go zones, even in the daytime.

Among the worst incidents reported, rocks thrown at two buses hit a 13-month-old child in Colombe, an official with the Interior Ministry said. The child was in serious condition.

In the northern city of Rouen, a police barricade was set afire and a burning car was pushed into the police station; and in Strasbourg, near the German border, a school was torched. A church was set ablaze in the southern fishing town of Sete and another in nearby Lens, Pas de Calais; two schools in the southeastern town of Saint-Etienne and a police station in the central France town of Clermont-Ferrand were torched, as was a social center in Seine-Saint-Denis, near the border with Switzerland.

Around 731 cars were set ablaze overnight Sunday. Thirty-four police were hurt, two of them seriously. Since October 27, 3,600 cars had been torched, officials have said.

Chirac emerged from an emergency meeting with top members of his Cabinet on Sunday to tell his nation that the "absolute priority is to reestablish security and public order."

"The law should have the final say, and the republic is determined to be stronger than those who want spread violence and fear. Those people will be apprehended, judged and punished."

Chirac also said he wants to address what some observers have blamed as the cause -- unemployment as high as 50 percent among the nation's poor immigrant youth and discrimination against them.

Officials face a dilemma -- how much of an iron fist to use, and how much aid to promise to poor neighborhoods without looking like they're rewarding the rioters.

The riots began after the October 27 electrocution deaths of two black teenagers, who climbed an electrically charged fence while running from police. Residents blamed police for the deaths.

There have been calls by opposition groups on the left, including the Green Party and the Communist Party, for Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to resign after he called the rioters "scum" earlier in the week -- language that served only to inflame the vandalism.

The spreading violence has shocked national leaders and community residents into action, with mediators and religious leaders talking to the youths in an effort to stop the violence.French Muslim groups also issued a fatwa against the violence, according to Reuters news agency.

The Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF) condemned the disorder and destruction the riots had caused.With the costs of the rioting rising into the millions, and the violence getting ever closer to tourist areas, French officials are under increasing pressure to take more action.

The rioting has prompted warnings from the U.S. and British governments for visitors avoid areas where violence was unfolding. National police spokesman Patrick Hamon told The Associated Press that arsonists were moving beyond their heavily policed neighborhoods to less protected areas.

"They are very mobile, in cars or scooters. ... It is quite hard to combat," Hamon told AP. "Most are young, very young, we have even seen young minors."

There appeared to be no coordination between separate groups in different areas, Hamon told AP. But within gangs, youths were communicating by cell phones or e-mails. "They organize themselves, arrange meetings, some prepare the Molotov cocktails."The U.S. Embassy in Paris has issued a public announcement warning American travelers about the rioting, reports CNN. I.L.

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