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France Getting Calmer After Weeks of Unrest

   
InternationalFrench police declared the all-clear Thursday, November 17, after three weeks of civil violence that has set off a fierce debate over the country's poor and immigrant neighborhoods.



As politicians grappled with the root causes of the unrest in a bid to stop it exploding again, the national police service said there was a "return to a normal situation everywhere in France" overnight, with just 98 vehicles torched across the country, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).

That figure was within the average nightly range seen before the worst civil unrest that France has seen in nearly four decades broke out on October 27.

In all, since the start of the troubles, 9,071 vehicles have been destroyed and 2,921 people apprehended.

A state of emergency remains in place, after lawmakers Wednesday, November 16, voted to extend by three months a law giving authorities the right to impose curfews and widen police search powers.

The peak of the violence was the night of November 6, when 1,408 vehicles were burnt.

Since then, and under the state of emergency imposed by President Jacques Chirac's government, it has gradually subsided.

The Rhone region covering Lyon and nearby southeastern towns said Thursday it was lifting a curfew on minors after just eight cars were burnt overnight.

Initially sparked by the electrocution deaths of two teenagers of west and north African background hiding from police in an electrical sub-station in a poor neighborhood northeast of Paris, the conflagration grew as youths from high-immigrant districts across the country joined in.

Many voiced anger at racial discrimination despite being born in France, a lack of educational and employment prospects and police harassment.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was singled out for vitriol because of his description of "rabble" and "louts" and a vow to clean crime out of the suburbs with a "power-hose".

Positive Discrimination

Sarkozy, a tough-talking presidential hopeful who also heads the ruling conservative UMP party, warned late Wednesday that, while the fires had died down, "nothing has yet been won for good."

Sarkozy also appealed for positive discrimination to be introduced as a way of helping minorities find jobs and said deep social changes were needed.

"I consider that there is no greater risk for France today that the risk of not taking any risk," he told L'Express magazine.

But Chirac has opted for modifications to the existing system and has ruled out the constitutional reform required to give preferential treatment to minorities.

The president's main proposal has instead focused on a sort of civil service for up to 50,000 youths, while Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has promised schemes to improve employment and education, and increasing the number of zones given tax breaks.

In a poll released Wednesday, there were signs that the stern stance by Sarkozy, and the government in general, was backed by the majority of French.

Sarkozy, Chirac and de Villepin all saw their popularity ratings get a boost in the Ipsos survey carried out November 12, with the interior minister benefiting most to garner 63 percent support.

Importantly for his ambitions, his "presidential vote potential" climbed to 61 percent, above the 53 percent for Villepin, seen as the designated heir of Chirac, who, at 72, looks increasingly unlikely to stand for re-election in 2007.

It was not clear, though, if the figures would stand the test of time, nor that the show of government unity that prevailed during the crisis would hold now that the worst has passed.