PARIS – Youths forced passengers off three buses and set them on fire overnight in suburban Paris, raising tensions Thursday ahead of the first anniversary of the riots that engulfed France’s rundown, heavily immigrant neighborhoods.
No injuries were reported, but worried bus drivers refused to enter some suburbs after dark, and the prime minister urged a swift, stern response.
The riots in October 2005 raged through housing projects in suburbs nationwide, springing in part from anger over entrenched discrimination against immigrants and their French-born children, many of them Muslims from former French colonies in Africa. Despite an influx of funds and promises, disenchantment still thrives in those communities.
About 10 attackers — five of them with handguns — stormed a bus in Montreuil east of Paris early Thursday and forced the passengers off, the RATP transport authority said. They then drove off and set the bus on fire.
Late Wednesday, three attackers forced passengers off another bus in Athis-Mons, south of Paris, and tossed a Molotov cocktail inside, police officials said. The driver managed to put out the fire. Elsewhere, between six and 10 youths herded passengers off a bus in the western suburb of Nanterre late Wednesday and set it alight.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said the events “should lead to an immediate response.”
“We cannot accept the unacceptable,” he told reporters in the northern suburb of Cergy-Pontoise. “There will be arrests. … That is our responsibility.”
Villepin also said efforts should be directed to “revitalize” troubled neighborhoods, and repeated the government’s insistence that authorities rid France of “lawless zones” where youth gangs operate.
The overnight attacks and recent ambushes on police have raised concern about the changing character of suburban violence, which is seemingly more premeditated than last year’s spontaneous outcry and no longer restricted to the housing projects. The use of handguns was unusual — last year’s rioters were armed primarily with crowbars, stones, sticks or gasoline bombs.
Regional authorities said the Nanterre bus line, which passes near Paris’ financial district, had not been considered at a high risk of attack. Francois Saglier, director of bus service at the RATP, said the attacks happened “without prior warning and not necessarily in neighborhoods considered difficult.”
The transit authority in the Essonne region south of Paris on Wednesday suspended nighttime bus service for security reasons following “multiple incidents,” including a tear gas bomb.
France’s inability to better integrate minorities and recent violence against police are becoming major political issues as the campaign heats up for next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who is considering whether to run for president, said that attacks demonstrate “a desire to kill.”
“Some individuals are looking for provocations, and sometimes go further,” she said on i-Tele television. She acknowledged people facing unemployment and living in overcrowded housing projects “have trouble finding their place” in society.