French holiday weekend to test downward trend in violence

French holiday weekend to test downward trend in violence France began a holiday weekend on Friday that will test a downward trend in violence since the government imposed emergency measures against rioters angered by conditions in the country's poorest suburbs. Police said 395 vehicles were set ablaze and 168 people were detained by 4 a.m. (3:00 a.m. British time) on the 15th consecutive night of disturbances that have put pressure on the conservative government, a similar level of violence to Wednesday night.

The unrest has receded since it hit a peak on Sunday night, and police hope the violence will continue to drop during the Armistice Day weekend, when offices close and city centres empty to mark the end of World War One on November 11, 1918. Residents of riot-torn suburbs are expected to march in central Paris on Friday to call for an end to violence.

But Paris police chief Pierre Mutz has banned the transport and purchase of petrol in jerry cans following a string of arrests in the capital of people carrying firebombs. He also says he fears violence is being planned in the capital itself. "Calls have been launched over the past few days on Internet sites and by SMS messages urging meetings within Paris and calling for 'violent actions', in the words of the authors of these messages," Mutz's office said in a statement.

Riots in the Paris area have been largely confined to the suburbs, mostly by youngsters who live in housing estates about an hour away from the city centre and are angered by racism, high unemployment, poor prospects and harsh treatment by police. The urban violence peaked last weekend but fell as emergency powers announced by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Tuesday allowed local officials to impose night curfews.

President Jacques Chirac said on Thursday the government had to address problems in the suburbs."We need to respond in a strong and quick way to the unquestionable problems that many inhabitants of the deprived neighbourhoods surrounding our cities are facing," said Chirac, who has come under fire for saying too little during the crisis.

Finance Minister Thierry Breton said he had prepared a series of proposals to create more jobs. "We have put a lot of money into the suburbs over the past 20 years," he told Britain's Financial Times newspaper. "But obviously it wasn't enough." The riots began after the accidental deaths of two youths apparently fleeing police but grew into protests by poor white youths and youngsters of North African and African origin.

The unrest has added a twist to rivalry between Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of presidential elections in 2007 and Sarkozy continued his tough rhetoric on Thursday calling those behind the violence "thugs" and "scum", reports Reuters. I.L.

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