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Chirac confronts inequality fueling community riots

PARIS — President Jacques Chirac for the first time directly addressed the inequalities and discrimination that have fueled two weeks of rioting across France, saying Thursday that the country has "undeniable problems" in its poor neighborhoods.

Violence continued to slow under state-of-emergency measures and heavy policing, with far fewer skirmishes and fewer cars burned. Police, meanwhile, suspended eight officers, two of them suspected of beating a man detained during the riots.

"Things are calming," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said on France-2 television. "But that doesn't mean it won't restart."

Chirac had kept largely silent about France's worst unrest since the 1968 uprising by students and workers, speaking publicly about the crisis only once in a brief address focused on security measures.

But on Thursday, he said that once order is restored, France will have to "draw the consequences of this crisis, and do so with a lot of courage and lucidity."

"There is a need to respond strongly and rapidly to the undeniable problems faced by many residents of underprivileged neighborhoods around our cities," he said at a news conference held with Spain's visiting prime minister.

"Whatever our origins, we are all the children of the Republic, and we can all expect the same rights," Chirac said.

But he also pointed a finger at parents, saying "too many minors" have joined the violence, some "pushed to the fore by their elders."

The unrest started among youths in Clichy-sous-Bois angry over the accidental electrocutions of two teenagers, but it rapidly grew into a nationwide wave of arson and nightly clashes between rioters armed with firebombs and police retaliating with tear gas.

The crisis has led to a collective soul-searching about France's failure to integrate its African and Muslim minorities. Anger about high unemployment and discrimination has fanned frustration among the French-born children of immigrants from former colonies.

One 20-year-old who grew up near Paris in Clichy-sous-Bois said he had stopped looking for a job and joined the rampage.

"Maybe I burnt cars. I know it's not very nice of me but, to be honest, I am happy that things heated up everywhere to let everybody know that we are sick of it," said Ahmed Zbeul, hanging around a courthouse Thursday to support friends on trial for theft.

Sarkozy, the interior minister,said fear was the worst factor in the troubled areas, and vowed to dismantle gangs and bands of drug traffickers that he said make up a tiny minority but ruin life for everyone else.

"If we get rid of those poisoning the lives of others, we will have taken a first step," he told France-2.

The government has taken a tough stance on rioters, with Sarkozy saying previously that local authorities were instructed to deport foreigners convicted of involvement.

The anti-racism group SOS-Racisme said it filed a complaint over the order with the Council of State, France's highest administrative body.

"Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal is illegal," organization president Dominique Sopo said, calling the measure a "mass deportation."

In La Courneuve, north of Paris, two police officers were suspected of dealing "unwarranted blows" to a man taken in for questioning, the Interior Ministry said. The officers were suspended along with six others suspected of witnessing the incident Monday. The victim had "superficial lesions" on the forehead and right foot, the ministry said.

A 12-day state of emergency went into effect Wednesday, paving the way for cities to impose curfews. But the vast majority of regional governments have not seen a need to use them.

The Mediterranean resort region of Alpes-Maritime ordered curfews for minors in 21 towns Wednesday, but a day later lifted the measures in seven places, including Cannes.

In Paris itself and much of the rest of the country, the state of emergency had no perceptible effect. Justice Minister Pascal Clement said only two people had been arrested for violating curfews.

National Police Chief Michel Gaudin reported a "very sharp drop" in violence.

On Wednesday night, the number of vehicles burned dropped to 482 from 617 the previous night. At the height of the violence last weekend, rioters torched nearly 3,000 cars in two nights. The number of incidents has dropped every night since then.

Police have arrested more than 3,000 people during the violence. Some 364 people, including 73 minors, have been convicted and jailed, the justice minister said.

Police said the worst unrest now appeared concentrated in a few cities away from the Paris region, including Toulouse, Lille, Lyon, Strasbourg and Marseille.

The French capital has seen little trouble, although Paris police banned the sale of gasoline in cans.

Contributing: Joelle Diderich, Jamey Keaten, John Leicester