BOBIGNY (FRANCE) (AFP) – Right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and right-wing Francois Fillon on Wednesday lashed out at the French government a day after a mob of school children in a Paris suburb assaulted police and smashed public property.
Chaotic images of tear gas being fired outside a secondary school in the tough northern suburb of Saint-Denis on Tuesday quickly became a political issue less than seven weeks from presidential elections.
The incident, which led to the arrest of 55 youths including 44 minors, followed a string of protests in February against police brutality after a black youth worker was allegedly raped with a police baton.
“Something is broken in our republic,” said Fillon.
Le Pen, who has made crime and immigration a core part of her campaign, claimed the government’s reaction had been “minimal”.
“It’s unacceptable that vandals threatened the future of our country and put teachers and other pupils in danger,” she said.
Le Pen, an anti-immigration nationalist, vowed to “reimpose order in the republic and win back the lost territories of our country”.
Saint-Denis, where the latest incident occurred, is home to a multi-ethnic population.
French police are regularly accused of using excessive force in poor neighbourhoods against suspects of mainly African origin.
Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve responded to criticism by calling on candidates not to “exploit” the violence for “electoral (campaign) purposes”.
– ‘Very serious acts’ –
The clashes broke out Tuesday after a Saint-Denis high school was evacuated on Tuesday afternoon when students let off smoke bombs inside the premises.
As the school emptied, a group of 80 to 100 pupils began throwing stones at police, setting fire to bins and breaking public property, police sources told AFP.
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem called for firm action.
“These are very serious acts by vandals that we need to punish severely,” she told reporters at a meeting of cabinet ministers.
Secondary schools in Paris have been repeatedly disrupted amid anger over police brutality following the alleged assault of a young black man in early February who says he was anally raped with a baton during his arrest.
A police source said officers heard some of the youths chanting “Revenge for Theo”, the 22-year-old who was allegedly raped.
France goes to the polls to elect a new president on April 23 and May 7, with immigration, security and worries about defiance of France’s state among the key issues.