Unrest flares in Paris suburb amid lockdown

PARIS (Reuters) - Police and youths clashed for a second night in a low-income Paris suburb on Sunday as strict lockdown rules to curb the spread of the coronavirus threaten a fragile social peace in deprived areas.

The trouble in Villeneuve-La-Garenne, north of Paris, first flared late Saturday after a motorcyclist collided with the open door of an unmarked police car during a pursuit. The skirmishes lasted into the early hours of Sunday before calm was restored.

Less than 24 hours later, unrest broke out again. Fireworks were aimed at police and several cars were torched, a police official said, as several dozen youths taunted officers. The police fired tear gas to disperse the troublemakers.

“We got the situation under control relatively quickly,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because an internal police inquiry is underway.

Mediators have been sent into the neighbourhood to soothe tensions, police said.

France’s banlieues -- high-rise neighbourhoods that ring many of its cities -- have long been flashpoints of anger over social and economic grievances. In 2005, unrest lasted three weeks after two youths died fleeing police in a northern Paris suburb.

The capital’s poor, ethnically diverse outskirts appear to have been hit harder by the coronavirus outbreak than more affluent central Paris, official data showing COVID-19-related deaths indicates.

After President Emmanuel Macron imposed a virtual lockdown on March 17, police officers privately expressed concerns that tough restrictions on public life could amplify tensions and spark unrest. Some residents of public housing have complained of being unfairly targeted and of heavy-handed policing.

Police said they had wanted to stop the motorcyclist in Villeneuve-La-Garenne after he was seen riding at speed the wrong way down a street without a helmet.

In one video published on the website of newspaper Le Parisien, officers could be seen standing over a man receiving treatment on a pavement. A moped lay a few metres away.

Le Parisien cited witnesses as saying the police car door was deliberately opened into the motorcyclist’s path. The police official who spoke to Reuters declined to comment on that accusation, saying there were two versions of events.

“An investigation is ongoing and there is camera footage of what happened.”

Macron’s government last week announced funds for poor families and additional support for the unemployed to help them through the lockdown and the sharp economic downturn brought on by the epidemic.

Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough, Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff