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Sarkozy says "thugocracy" behind French riots

PARIS (Reuters) - Riots which hit a Paris suburb this week were the work of a “thugocracy” of criminals and not the result of social deprivation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday.

Sarkozy’s remarks came three days after dozens of police were injured in clashes with rioters following the death of two boys in a collision with a police car in the suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, to the north of Paris.

“I reject any form of other-worldly naivety that wants to see a victim of society in anyone who breaks the law, a social problem in any riot,” he said in a speech to police officers.

“What happened in Villiers-le-Bel has nothing to do with a social crisis. It has everything to do with a ‘thugocracy’.”

This week’s unrest reawakened memories of the violence that struck many poor French suburbs in 2005 when rioting youths torched thousands of cars during weeks of clashes with police.

A massive police presence has restored a tense calm to Villiers-le-Bel over the past two nights but traces of the violence, in the form of a burned-out library and car showroom and smashed shop windows and bus shelters, remain.

The 2005 riots, the worst urban violence in France in 40 years, provoked months of agonized debate over the state of the grim housing estates that ring many French cities and the integration of millions of black and North African immigrants.

Many inhabitants of the poor suburbs say the government has failed to address their problems.

“Nothing has changed (since 2005). There’s just no work for young people,” said Jamila El Kadiri, who attended a silent march in Villiers-le-Bel in honor of the two dead teenagers.

Her daughter Nawel, 18, agreed. “Some of my friends want to quit school because they don’t see the point. They think they won’t find a job afterwards anyway.”

Sarkozy, who struck a similarly uncompromising tone when he was interior minister in 2005, said the answer to the riots did not lie in spending more on improving facilities.

“The response to the riots isn’t yet more money on the backs of the tax payers. The response to the riots is to arrest the rioters,” he said.

In 2005 Sarkozy triggered outrage, including among many people unconnected with the unrest, when he branded the rioters as “racaille” (“scum” or “rabble”).

The “quartiers” or “cites”, as the estates are known, are a world away from the prosperous centers of cities like Paris, blighted by high crime and unemployment, poor transport links and run-down housing.

Young people, many the children of immigrants, have frequently hostile relations with police and the courts, whom they often accuse of routine discrimination, but there was little sign of sympathy in the president’s speech.

“If a little tough guy can come back after every crime to his housing estate to be welcomed as a hero, it’s an insult ... to the republic,” Sarkozy said.

“We’ll give more to those who want to get ahead honestly and the ones who don’t want to will get more too, but not in the same way,” he added.

Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich; Editing by Jon Boyle and Sami Aboudi