Chirac confronts problem of France's troubled suburbs; unrest appears to abate

President Jacques Chirac for the first time directly addressed the inequalities and discrimination that have fueled two weeks of rioting across France, saying Thursday that the country has "undeniable problems" in its poor suburbs.

Violence continued to slow under state-of-emergency measures and heavy policing, with far fewer skirmishes and fewer cars burned. Police, meanwhile, suspended eight officers, two of them suspected of beating a man detained during the riots.

"Things are calming," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said Thursday on France-2 television. "But that doesn't mean it won't restart."

As midnight approached on Thursday, isolated reports of cars being torched emerged, but it appeared clear that violence was on a much lower level than on previous nights.

Chirac had kept largely silent about France's worst unrest since the 1968 student-worker uprising: In 14 days of violence, he had spoken publicly on the crisis only once.

Once order is restored, Chirac said Thursday, France will have to "draw the consequences of this crisis, and do so with a lot of courage and lucidity."

"There is a need to respond strongly and rapidly to the undeniable problems faced by many residents of underprivileged neighborhoods around our cities," he said during a news conference with the visiting prime minister of Spain.

"Whatever our origins, we are all the children of the Republic, and we can all expect the same rights."

But he also pointed a finger at parents, saying "too many minors" have joined the violence, some "pushed to the fore by their elders."

The unrest, which started among youths in the northeastern suburban Paris town of Clichy-sous-Bois angry over the accidental electrocution deaths of two teenagers grew into a nationwide wave of arson and nightly clashes between rioters armed with firebombs and police retaliating with tear gas.

The crisis has led to collective soul-searching about France's failure to integrate its African and Muslim minorities. Anger about high unemployment and discrimination has fanned frustration among the French-born children of immigrants from France's former colonies.

One 20-year-old who grew up in Clichy-sous-Bois said he had stopped looking for a job and joined the rampage.

"Maybe I burnt cars, I know it's not very nice of me, but to be honest, I am happy that things heated up everywhere to let everybody know that we are sick of it," said Ahmed Zbeul, hanging around a suburban courthouse to support friends on trial for theft.

Sarkozy, the interior minister, vowed to dismantle gangs and bands of drug traffickers that, he said, make up a tiny minority but poison everyone's lives.

Asked about the outcry over comments he made referring to suburban troublemakers as "scum," Sarkozy told France-2 television he stood by his remarks. But he stressed "in no case" was he referring to "all youths."

The government has toughened its stance against rioters; Sarkozy said local authorities have been instructed to deport foreigners convicted of involvement.

The president of anti-racism group SOS-Racisme said it had filed a complaint to the Council of State, France's highest administrative body. "Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal is illegal," organization president Dominique Sopo said, calling the measure a "mass deportation." The council has 48 hours to respond.

In the northern Paris suburb of La Courneuve, two police officers suspected of dealing "unwarranted blows" to a man taken in for questioning, the Interior Ministry said.

Video footage of police beating a young man were broadcast on France-2 Thursday night. The television station said it had passed the footage to police for an internal investigation.

The officers were suspended along with six others suspected of witnessing the incident Monday. The victim had "superficial lesions" on the forehead and the right foot, the ministry said.

A 12-day state of emergency went into effect Wednesday, paving the way for cities to impose curfews if they deem it necessary. But the vast majority of regional governments have not seen a need to use them. The Mediterranean resort region of Alpes-Maritime imposed curfews for minors in 21 towns; a day later, the measure was lifted Thursday in seven of them, including Cannes.

In Paris and much of the rest of the country the state of emergency has had no perceptible effect. So far, Justice Minister Pascal Clement said, two people have been arrested for violating curfews.

National Police Chief Michel Gaudin noted what he called a "very sharp drop" in acts of violence from Wednesday-Thursday, with 482 vehicles burned _ down from 617 the night before. At the height of the violence last weekend, rioters torched nearly 3,000 cars in two nights. The number of incidents has dropped every night since.

Police have made more than 3,000 arrests over two weeks, the interior minister said Thursday.

A total of 364 people, including 73 minors, have been imprisoned, said the justice minister, AP reported. V.A.

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