French police are ready for unrest in poor suburbs where youths rioted with police for three weeks in 2005 if tough-talking conservative Nicolas Sarkozy is elected as the country's new president.
Polls show Sarkozy leading Socialist Segolene Royal and on Friday she joined the array of voices expressing concern that his victory could inflame the country. Sarkozy's team criticized such claims as fear-mongering.
Once France's top cop, Sarkozy is loathed by many black and Arab youths for calling troublemakers in immigrant-dominated neighborhoods "scum" and vowing to clean them up with a power sprayer in 2005. A three-week wave of rioting, car burnings and clashes between youths and police erupted later that year.
The Interior Ministry, which Sarkozy headed until late March, is on watch for a possible replay of violence if he wins, officials said.
"The ministry is expecting something. Its breadth is immeasurable - no one wants to fall into the rumor trap - but there certainly will be something," said a police official on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Authorities in the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris - the epicenter of the 2005 rioting - are refusing officers' requests for days off on Sunday: It's all-hands-on-desk, an official said. Another said riot police reinforcements were being readied for the Paris area. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Paris police and the national police declined comment about their preparations or whether they had information about a possible outbreak of violence.
Many French praise Sarkozy's crackdown against crime after becoming interior minister in 2002. But many immigrants and their French-born children in housing projects complain it also engendered frequent identity-card checks by police - even of honest citizens - and fostered a sense of discrimination.
Christophe Soullez, a criminologist at the regional office of the Interior Ministry's National Crime Office, said many troublemakers fear Sarkozy, as president, could continue to crack down on drug dealers, and will not reinstate neighborhood police programs sought by his critics on the left.
"There could be sporadic incidents in some neighborhoods," said Soullez. "I don't expect an explosion - it's not in the interest of the people who live there because it will curse them, and stigmatize them."
AC-Le-Feu, a non-violent community group created after the riots in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the violence first broke out, said they were on guard, too.
"If Mr. Sarkozy is president ... naturally there's a risk of tensions," association member Mamadou Kanoute told AP Television News. "It's not easy to live through when everything is burning."
Royal said Friday that she felt a "responsibility to raise the alert about the risks of this candidacy and the violence and brutality that will be set off in the country. Everyone knows it but no one says it. It is a kind of taboo."
Sarkozy's office countered that such talk was inappropriate.
"Madame Royal is not going to convince the French people to vote for her by trying to scare them or by firing off personal invective," Sarkozy's office said in a statement.
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18