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Paris - President Francois Hollande must perform a delicate balancing act after riots in the French city of Amiens, ensuring a tough stance on crime without alienating left-wing supporters or reviving memories of his hardline predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
Hollande pledged zero tolerance after the two days of unrest in Amiens left 17 police officers injured and sparked fears of a repeat of the urban riots which swept France in 2005, in the first security challenge of his three-month-old presidency.
The restive Fafet neighbourhood in the northern city of Amiens was calm for a second straight night but some on France's left voiced unease at the sight of a Socialist government, elected in May on pledges of helping the poor inhabitants of urban ghettos, deploying hundreds of riot police there.
“A hundred days after Francois Hollande took office, the security trap is closing around him and his interior minister, who are failing to mark their distance from Nicolas Sarkozy,” the left-leaning daily Liberation said in an editorial.
Political analysts said, however, the government was sending a clear message that it would not tolerate a repeat of the violence in a bid to convince voters, who overwhelmingly favour a hard line on crime, that it is up to the task.
A poll for right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro on Saturday, before the riots began, showed only 35 percent trusted him on public safety. Hollande had savaged Sarkozy's tough stance on delinquency during the campaign for May's presidential runoff.
“The government is trying to strike a balance between breaking with the traditional Left by being tough on crime while restoring community policing which was scrapped under Sarkozy due to cutbacks,” said Stephane Rozes of the CAP political consultancy.
The Alliance police union said Sarkozy's government cut around 5 000 police jobs from 2008 to 2012 as it struggled to rein in the government deficit during the financial crisis.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls pledged on Thursday to roll back those cuts by adding 500 officers a year from 2013 - one of Hollande's campaign promises - to improve urban security.
At the same time, Valls carefully distanced himself from Sarkozy, whose pledge as interior minister in 2005 that he would sweep the “scum” out of the neighbourhoods with a powerful Karcher water cannon polarised opinion.
“I have not come here to see them turn the Karcher on this neighbourhood,” Valls said on arriving in Amiens.
However, Valls' plans to boost policing in 15 priority areas across France - including the Amiens region - came under scrutiny after some Fafet residents blamed heavy-handed policing for sparking the riots.
The first clashes on Sunday took place after officers aggressively questioned a dozen youths who had gathered to pay homage to a friend who died in a scooter accident.
France's right-wing UMP opposition has mostly remained silent, though the right-leaning Le Figaro daily questioned why no-one had been arrested five days after the violence began.
The first arrests finally came in a pre-dawn raid on Thursday, when police detained five youths on charges ranging from arson to robbery, trafficking and incitement to violence.
Police unions, however, said this was increasingly the norm.
“Sometimes the first priority is to re-establish calm,” said Jean-Claude Delage, secretary general of Alliance.
Thomas Lavielle, an official from the local prefect's office, said further arrests were expected as police examined ballistics evidence, DNA traces and video footage to build a cast-iron case against the rioters.
Local Socialist mayor Gilles Demailly said that rampant unemployment - running as high as 45 percent in Fafet - was at the root of the problem.
With France's economy expected to remain weak as the euro zone crisis drags on and the government pares spending to control its deficit, analysts said Amiens may not be the last security test for Hollande.
“The economic crisis and the high level of unemployment in many neighbourhoods means there is potential, as in other European countries, for more unrest,” Rozes said.
“The issue is not whether the government can prevent this, but to see whether it can find a way of restoring social equilibrium in the long term.” - Reuters