France’s Sarkozy declares “war” on urban violence

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared “war” on urban violence on Wednesday after a weekend of riots, sacking the government prefect in a region hit by unrest and replacing him with a former police officer.

Sarkozy said the government would not back down following two separate weekend incidents in which rioters burned cars, attacked a tramway, shot at police and destroyed government property.

“The government will continue to wage a relentless fight against crime. This is a war that we will take to the traffickers and criminals,” Sarkozy said in a statement after a cabinet meeting.

“The rule of law must be respected throughout the national territory,” he said.

Unrest in overcrowded high-rise neighbourhoods on the fringes of cites is a challenge to Sarkozy, who won election in 2007 vowing to flush out delinquent “vermin” with a power-hose, but failed to reduce violent crime despite escalating rhetoric.

The opposition Socialists say the government should do more to deal with the severe social and housing problems in rough neighbourhoods rather than just sending in riot police when they explode.

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux acknowledged in a radio interview on Wednesday that acts of violence against persons were continuing to increase despite the conservative president’s security crackdown.

Riots erupted over the weekend in the Grenoble neighbourhood of Villeneuve in protest of the death of a local man fleeing police after allegedly holding up a casino.

Sarkozy appointed a former police officer as the government prefect in the Alpine region, a post that includes responsibility for security.

He also condemned the destruction of a police station and government properties by about 50 Roma rioters armed with axes, who were protesting at the death of a 22-year-old, shot by the police in another region.

“These incidents highlights a certain kind of behaviour among some of the travelling people and Roma,” Sarkozy said. Those living in illegal settlements would be evicted, he added.

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