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French Authorities Fear Spread of Violence

After a week of violence in suburbs around Paris, some French authorities now fear the unrest may spread to other parts of France. There are also reports that organized gangs may be profiting from the turmoil.

There were no reports of major clashes between French police and youths during the latest round of violence Thursday night. But some 600 vehicles were torched in the suburbs surrounding Paris. More worrying, perhaps, police reported these arson attacks are spreading beyond the original Seine-Saint-Denis area near Paris, where the violence originated last week.

In remarks to reporters Friday, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy did not rule out the possibility that organized gangs may be fueling the violence, originally started by individual immigrant youths.

Mr. Sarkozy said officials were struck by a large amount of organization behind the riots in the Sein-Saint Denis region where they began last week. He commented this did not appear to be spontaneous.

The near nightly riots were originally touched off after the accidental electrocution of two young men who thought they were fleeing French police.

Recently, some police and analysts have suggested that organized gangs and even radical Islamist groups may be profiting from the situation. But French immigration expert, Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, is not so sure that radical Islam is fueling these rampaging youths. Ms. de Wenden is research director at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris.

"I think most of these youths aren't practicing their religion strongly," said Catherine Wihtol de Wenden. "The rate of participation to various duties of Islam is very low - like with other religions in France - between 8 and 10 percent. But in some cases, there can be some identity feelings of community. Especially if they feel there is racism toward them or discrimination. But I think there is no link between Islam and violence.

So far, Ms. de Wenden notes, the violence has not spread to other major cities in France like Toulouse, Marseille or Lyon. All of these municipalities are also struggling with restive, immigrant-heavy housing projects, like those that exploded into violence around Paris.

Imams and other community leaders have been trying to calm things down. But experts like Ms. Wenden say their effectiveness has been spotty. And after a week of unrest, nobody seems quite sure just how, and when, the violence will end.