More than 80 police officers were injured in pitched battles with youths – some armed with hunting rifles – as housing estates around Paris erupted into violence for a second night running.
Police said that they faced “urban guerilla tactics” as they came under a hail of lead shot, molotov cocktails and other projectiles thrown by gangs of hooded youths, who also set fire to cars, bins and public buildings.
The clashes, which were described by one officer as worse than the riots which shook France’s council estates in 2005, follow the deaths on Sunday of two teenagers whose motorbike hit a police patrol car in Villiers-le-Bel, north of the capital.
As last night’s unrest spread from Villiers-le-Bel to neighbouring towns in the impoverished Val d’Oise departement, 80 police officers were injured, five seriously. At least 25 had been injured in rioting on Sunday. A total of 63 cars were set ablaze in Villiers-le-Bel, where gangs torched a library, two schools, a tax office and supermarket. Two French television reporters were also attacked and had their cameras stolen.
Eyewitnesses said that at the height of the violence 160 riot police battled with youths for control of a roundabout in the centre of Villiers-le-Bel. As the rioters advanced behind dustbin lids, police were forced to retreat amid burning debris.
Bruno Beschizza, secretary-general of Synergie, the French police union, said that his members had faced “veritable urban guerilla tactics”.
“There is a level of violence higher than in the urban riots of 2005,” he said.
Michele Alliot-Marie, the French Interior Minister, said that many officers had been hit by lead shot from hunting rifles. “There are some who are seriously injured, which is to say they were hit in the face near the eye. Of course it’s a worrying phenomenon.” Police sources added that one officer was shot in the shoulder with a bullet from a high-calibre rifle. His life was not in danger.
Ms Alliot-Marie said that she had talked by telephone to President Sarkozy, who is on a state visit to China. After the conversation, in which Mr Sarkozy gave her advice on how to handle the crisis, she announced that she would visit Val d’Oise.
The disturbances came as prosecutors began a manslaughter inquiry into the deaths of two teenagers, Moushin, 15, and Larami, 16, both children of African immigrants, who are known only by their first names. An initial police investigation found that the pair were at fault, speeding through a red light on a mini dirt bike, unlicensed and without helmets.
Didier Vaillant, the Socialist mayor of Villiers-le-Bel, said: “I am appealing to all, so that we can get back to calm. We are in mourning. I ask all residents and especially the youth not to succumb to anger.”
Arnaud Montebourg, a leading Socialist MP, said that France had failed to tackle the problems which led to the riots on its multi-ethnic housing estates two years ago. “If you have officers injured including five seriously after apparently being attacked with guns in one night, that means that no lessons have been drawn since 2005,” he said.
Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader, added: “Promises were made. We want to see the results. How long have we been talking about a plan for the suburbs?”
Dominique de Villepin, who was Prime Minister in 2005 and promised to improve life in the suburbs of French cities, added that urgent action was required to defuse the anger. However, reports over the past month have shown that life has barely improved in the ghetto-like estates of the northern and eastern suburbs, where the children of immigrants suffer from poverty, unemployment and educational neglect.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, gave a provocative verdict: “There is an overpopulation of foreigners in our suburbs. There is unemployment, which means that people have time to wander around, to play with cars and all sorts of things, often with stolen cars.”
The prosecutors’ investigation will try to determine whether offences of manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident had been committed by the police officers driving the patrol car. After examining the vehicle car and interviewing the two officers, inspectors said that they had not been at fault. It was not clear, however, whether they had performed all their duties after the accident.
A brother of one of the victims accused the officers of ramming the motorbike and of failing to assist the boys. “This is a failure to assist a person in danger. They know it, and that’s why they did not stay at the scene,” he said. “I know they will say they left because they were afraid of clashes or of being assaulted, but up until now we have had no apology.”