Witnesses say attackers repeatedly hurled homemade fire bombs at one sports gym in suburban Paris from the top of a nearby residential building -- fueling the blaze even as firefighters tried to extinguish it.
A woman who lives in that neighborhood called the destruction a senseless act of hooliganism: "It is something horrible. We don't understand. We are in shock. When we see something like this, we are completely beside ourselves with anger about such senselessness. It is true that this gymnasium was a golden opportunity for all the youths [in this neighborhood] -- and for all the people who were using it. It had very modern facilities. So we just don't understand."
Last night marked a new peak for the spread of rioting as hundreds of cars were set ablaze in the north, east and south of the country. Authorities arrested more than 200 rioters across the country.
The violence comes despite an increased police presence in Paris suburbs and other poor suburban neighborhoods. It is widely seen as an expression of pent-up anger by young people -- many of whom are Muslims of North African and black African origin -- about police treatment, racism, unemployment, and their marginal place in French society.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin summoned eight key ministers and a top Muslim official to his office yesterday as he sought a way to bring an end to the rioting. Among them was Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
"The government is unanimous in its determination," Sarkozy said. "[In regard to] the violence and the destruction of public goods in neighborhoods where people have the biggest needs.... we will be extremely firm. Once this crisis is overcome and calm is restored, each must also understand that there's also a certain feeling of injustice in some neighborhoods. I have thought this for a long time, and said it as well."
French Finance Minister Thierry Bretton also has been consulted about how the government can respond to the crisis. Bretton says the deeper problems behind the rioting can only be solved after order is restored: "The government as a whole is mobilized. The priority is to go back to normal, to get away from this situation which is not normal. The priority is not to allow any zones in France that will stay outside the law and to get the whole country back to normal."
French mayors have criticized Villepin's government. They have been expressing concerns about the spread of rioting to more cities with large concentrations of minorities.
Reports say many of those involved in the violence are locally born citizens of North African and black African origin who feel cheated by France's official promises of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The first riot in the current wave of violence broke out in late October after two teenagers of African origin were electrocuted while apparently trying to flee police.
Villepin has blamed the riots on organized gangs that he says are terrorizing neighborhoods and trying to keep away police. Villepin has vowed to restore law and order. Several conservative French politicians also have accused drug traffickers and Islamist militants of fanning the unrest, though they have given no specific details.