| A man (face blurred), accused of violent acts in urban areas, at his trial in Nantes, France. (AFP)
Paris, Nov. 8 (Reuters): France is wounded and faces a moment of truth, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said today, after his government approved the use of curfews to quell 12 nights of rioting.
The protests, blamed on racism and unemployment in rundown suburbs, receded in the Paris region after shots were fired at police the previous night but continued unabated in other parts of France in the early hours today, with youths torching more than 1,000 vehicles overnight.
“The Republic faces a moment of truth ... France is wounded. It cannot recognise itself in its streets and devastated areas, in these outbursts of hatred and violence which destroy and kill,” Villepin told the lower house of parliament.
“A return to order is the absolute priority. The government has shown this. It will take all the steps necessary to ensure the protection of our citizens and to restore calm ... We see these events as a warning and as an appeal.”
Villepin’s conservative government adopted a decree at an emergency session under a 1955 law that allows regional government officials known as prefects to impose curfews if they consider it necessary.
The decree was due to take effect at 2300 GMT, after the interior ministry decides where prefects can impose curfews not widely seen here since the Algerian war of 1954-1962.
Villepin said 1,500 police would be brought in to back up the 8,000 officers already deployed in areas hit by unrest involving poor white youths as well as French-born citizens of Arab or African origin complaining of racism.
Outlining his plans to parliament, he promised to accelerate urban renewal programmes and vowed to help young people in poor suburbs by reducing unemployment and improving their education opportunities.
President Jacques Chirac said the measures were needed to restore order but pressure is mounting on him and Villepin over France’s worst unrest in decades. The President has said little in public about the violence, in which one man has been killed.
“The absence of the President is remarkable in this period we’re going through,” said Francois Bayrou, head of a centrist party that is critical of the conservative government.
Responding to Villepin’s speech, Socialist Party deputy Jean-Marc Ayrault prompted boos from conservative deputies by telling parliament: “Your government, Mr Prime Minister ... bears heavy responsibility over this outburst of passions.”
Mayors of riot-hit towns welcomed the government’s tougher line. A town east of Paris imposed its own curfew on minors yesterday evening and another to the west of the capital organised citizens’ patrols to help the police.
But some mayors asked what another measure announced by Villepin ' extended powers for them ' would mean in practice.
“Every time they announce more powers for mayors, they cut the funds,” complained Jean-Christophe Lagarde, mayor of the northeastern Paris suburb of Drancy.
The Opposition Socialists said Villepin had not done enough to give hope to those people in areas hit by the unrest.
Although Villepin first announced his plans to end the unrest last evening, new violence erupted overnight.
Some 1,173 vehicles were torched compared to 1,408 on Sunday night, the interior ministry said. At least four police were hurt, compared with 36 on Sunday, and 330 rioters were detained. The unrest hit Toulouse, Lille and Strasbourg as well as some Paris suburbs.