LE BLANC-MESNIL, France (Reuters) - Young rioters set fire to at least 50 vehicles in an eighth night of unrest in the impoverished suburbs of northeastern Paris as exasperated local officials criticised politicking by national leaders.
Rioting erupted again late on Thursday despite hopes that festivities ending the fasting month of Ramadan would calm rioters, many of them Muslims of North African origin protesting against race bias they say keeps them in a second-class status.
About 1,000 riot police patrolled poor areas but gangs of hooded youths roamed the streets threatening to strike again later in the night.
"It seems a bit calmer than previous nights but about 50 vehicles have been torched since nightfall," said a police spokesman in the Seine Saint Denis area.
French media also reported attacks on a school and a bus in northern Paris and on vehicles in two poor areas to the west of the capital. Several cars were also reported to gave been set ablaze in Dijon, the first city outside Paris to be hit.
On Thursday evening, local officials complained loudly about dithering and politicking among national officials after Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin briefed them about an "action plan for the suburbs" he aimed to present later this month.
"Many of us told him this isn't the time for an umpteenth plan," said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, mayor of Drancy in the riot-hit region. "All we need is one death and I think it will get out of control."
Manuel Valls, mayor of Evry south of the capital, said: "We're afraid that what's happening in Seine Saint Denis will spread. We have to give these people a message of hope."
LAW AND ORDER "ABSOLUTE PRIORITY"
Rioting among young men of North African and black African origin -- mostly locally-born citizens who feel cheated by France's official promises of liberty, equality and fraternity -- began last week after two teenagers of African origin died while fleeing the police.
It escalated on Wednesday evening when police and fire crews were shot at with live ammunition on three occasions.
Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, whose bitter political rivalry has overshadowed the government's reaction, teamed up in the French Senate on Thursday to announce that restoring order was their "absolute priority".
Villepin indirectly blamed the riots on gangs he said terrorised residents and sought to keep police out of their neighbourhoods.
"I refuse to accept that organised gangs are laying down the law in certain neighbourhoods, I refuse to accept that crime networks and drug traffickers profit from this disorder, I refuse to accept that the strong intimidate the weak," he said.
"Law and order will have the last word," he told senators.
Sarkozy seconded him, saying: "There is only one political line, that set by the prime minister."
Sarkozy, accused by opponents of inflaming passions with his outspoken attacks on the "scum" behind the violence, said on Thursday that 143 people had been detained in the past week for rioting.
The unrest in France comes despite Sarkozy's anti-crime drive following President Jacques Chirac's re-election in 2002, which was won largely on law and order issues.
His two-pronged approach -- a crackdown on rioters combined with proposals to promote minorities and help fund mosques -- has provoked rearguard attacks from rivals in the conservative government who accuse him of stoking extremism.
Villepin has struggled to end cabinet squabbling over how to handle disturbances that forced him to cancel a trip to Canada and Sarkozy to call off a visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moscow warned Russians against visiting Paris suburbs.
The ruling Union for a Popular Majority is split between a pro-Sarkozy camp and rivals who support Chirac and Villepin, handing the opposition Socialists a rare chance to attack the conservatives on their much-vaunted record on crime.
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