PARIS (AFP) - Right-wing French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday defended the actions of police who used tear-gas and baton charges to control scores of rioters in a crowded Paris railway station.
Commuters cowered in dismay as groups of young people threw projectiles at police, smashing shop-windows, advertising hoardings and drink distributors. Calm was not restored till after midnight.
"We are the only country where it is considered abnormal to arrest someone who doesn't pay for his ticket. If the police is not there to ensure a minumum of order, what exactly is its role?" said Sarkozy, who stepped down as interior minister on Monday.
His replacement Francois Baroin condemned the rioters, saying that "nothing can justify what happened yesterday evening at the Gare du Nord."
"A perfectly normal ticket check degenerated into urban guerrilla warfare, into unacceptable, intolerable violence. We live in a state of law and of freedom -- but there is no freedom without rules," he said.
However the Socialist Party (PS) opposition said that Sarkozy's legacy at the interior ministry -- including the 2005 riots -- had stirred up animosity between police and young people from the high-immigration city suburbs or "banlieues".
The Gare du Nord clashes "illustrate the climate of tension, the gulf and the violence dividing the police and the population. The conditions for a relationship of calm and trust have urgently to be re-established," said Julien Dray, spokesman for PS candidate Segolene Royal.
Royal and Sarkozy are the frontrunners in the presidential election to take place on April 22 and May 6.
The Socialists drew a parallel between the station riot and an incident last week in which police detained a Chinese illegal immigrant outside a junior school in Paris, sparking an angry stand-off with parents.
"The incidents in the rue Rampal and those in the Gare du Nord point to a Sarkozy-inspired climate of tension, abuse of power, verbal violence and stigmatisation," said PS deputy Jean-Christophe Cambadelis. "This is the 'France of tomorrow' that Sarkozy is promising."
Sarkozy, 52, is widely hated by young people in the city suburbs where he is accused of instituting a policy of hardline police repression. Widely-reported remarks in which he called delinquents "rabble" and promised to clean out criminal gangs with a "power-hose" have damaged his image.
In Tuesday evening's incidents many of the young rioters chanted obscene slogans naming Sarkozy.
The trouble began when officials from the metro operator RATP stopped a 33-year-old man who had jumped over a turnstile to avoid paying. They say the man reacted violently and police were called. However some witnesses said his arrest was carried out with unnecessary force.
Crowds of young people then gathered in the underground section of the Gare du Nord, which is a major rail hub for the Paris suburbs as well as an international terminus.
A spokesman for the police union Alliance said that hostility to the police is increasingly widespread in France.
"The principle of intervening when other people are arrested is becoming general. There is an instinct to challenge everything in uniform," said Dominique Achispon.
The rioters had no known link to the arrested man, who according to Baroin is an illegal immigrant with a long police record.