Flames of French riots reignite tensions

VILLIERS-LE-BEL, France (AP) – Rampaging youths threw Molotov cocktails and set fire to dozens of cars in troubled neighborhoods outside Paris on Monday, the second night of street violence after two local teens were killed in a crash with a police patrol car.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, visiting China, appealed for calm, while police braced for more problems. With several dozen officers injured during two nights of rioting, the violence was a reminder of the tensions that drove weeks of rioting in 2005 in poor neighborhoods with large minority populations.

Anger focused on police, with residents claiming that officers left the scene of Sunday’s crash without helping the two teens whose motorbike collided with their car. Officials cast doubt on the claim but the internal police oversight agency was investigating nevertheless.

Investigators were still trying to piece together exactly what happened in the Sunday afternoon crash in Villiers-le-Bel, a town of public housing blocks home to a mix of Arab, black and white residents in the French capital’s northern suburbs.

Police officials said the motorbike ignored traffic rules and crashed into the police vehicle, and that the bike was unregistered and thus not authorized for use on French roads. Neither of the teens, aged 15 and 16, was wearing a helmet, and the prosecutor’s office said the bike was going at maximum speed.

The internal police oversight agency opened an inquiry into whether the deaths were manslaughter and whether the officers failed to help the teens, a police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

An alcohol test showed that neither of the officers had been drinking, and initial inquiries suggested they did not appear to have caused the crash, police said. The prosecutor, Marie-Therese de Givry, told LCI television that the officers called rescue services to the scene.

Villiers-le-Bel was on edge Monday for a second night, though the families of the two teenagers called for calm. A crowd of youths set police barricades on fire and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at officers, who retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets. In Villiers-le-Bel and surrounding areas, youths set fire to 36 vehicles, the area’s prefecture said.

Youths were seen firing buckshot at police and reporters. The prefecture said many police had injuries; a police union official said 38 officers were wounded, including three seriously. One reporter also was injured. Two youths were taken into custody, the prefecture said.

“The situation is tense; there are a lot of police on the ground to prevent more flare-ups,” Gaelle James of the Synergie police officers’ union said.

In Sunday’s violence, eight people were arrested and 20 police officers were injured – including the town’s police chief, who was beaten in the face when he tried to negotiate with the rioters, police said. One firefighter also was injured.

Also Sunday, witnesses said, police fired rubber pellets at youths. Two police stations were targeted, one with Molotov cocktails. A McDonald’s restaurant was burned, as were about 15 cars and several garbage cans.

“I want everyone to calm down and let the justice system determine who was responsible,” Sarkozy said.

Residents drew parallels with the 2005 riots. That unrest was prompted by the deaths of two teens electrocuted in a power substation while hiding from police in a suburb northeast of Paris.

A recent study by the state auditor’s office indicated that money poured into poor French suburbs in recent decades had done little to solve problems vividly exposed by the 2005 riots, including unemployment and racial discrimination.