PARIS – Fed up with television images of her country in flames, Paris hairdresser Vesna Djoric said it is time for the French to stop being so tolerant of immigrant troublemakers and consider replacing compassion with toughness.

“It’s about time somebody said what we’re all thinking,” Djoric commented, adding that she fully supported a recent call by the hard-line interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, for France to “pump out” its rioting “scum.”

After nearly two weeks of nightly riots across the country, France shows growing signs of an anti-immigrant backlash as horrified citizens demand a harsher crackdown on troublemakers. Some French are warning that the country’s current mood could damage relations with its Muslim community and bolster support for a right-wing extremist party.

Police said violence around the country, occurring mainly in North African immigrant communities that ring major urban centers, diminished considerably after a new curfew went into effect late Tuesday, enforced by more than 11,000 officers.

Sarkozy warned on Wednesday that any foreigners, whether here legally or illegally, who are convicted of violating the curfew would be expelled from the country “without delay.”

Sarkozy is expected to challenge his rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, in presidential elections in 2007. In contrast to Sarkozy, the prime minister has called for measures to create jobs, reduce discrimination and address concerns among immigrants that they are being neglected. Some French criticize De Villepin as being too conciliatory.

In well-to-do neighborhoods of central Paris, shopkeepers and residents offered high praise for the combative interior minister.

“He’s right to speak out. Sarkozy says what everyone else feels but is too afraid to say,” Djoric said. “It’s time to get tough, but I’m afraid that a bigger explosion might be coming. These people are like mad dogs. Sometimes a little poke can make them attack.”

In a poll published by the newspaper Le Parisien, 73 percent of respondents backed the government’s new get-tough measures to halt firebomb attacks by rioting gangs of youths.

The French Riviera city of Nice joined a growing number of urban and suburban centers imposing emergency measures.

“The government needs to take stronger action. These are delinquents and drug dealers, and Sarkozy is right to say it. You have to call a cat a cat,” said a Paris pharmacist, who would identify himself only as Parienti. “Their problem is they don’t want to integrate into our society. They think they can live here and maintain their own culture apart from ours.”

Even though central Paris has largely been spared from attack over the past two weeks, residents said they are still taking precautions.

“We wanted to decorate our store with big, gift-wrapped boxes for the Christmas season, but we don’t dare. They might set fire to them,” said Nathalie Normand, a clerk at an eastern Paris toy store.

“After 5 or 6 at night, most women won’t go out on the streets,” she added. “I won’t drive my car to work now because I’m afraid they’ll burn it when I drive home.”

Normand disagreed with Sarkozy’s use of the word “scum” to describe the rioters but said she approved of his overall response, especially concerning measures that would reduce the immigrant population and help cut the nation’s double-digit unemployment rate.

“French fathers and mothers are going jobless while employers give jobs to the immigrants. We need a French-first policy when it comes to jobs,” she said. “I think Europe in general has been far too liberal in opening its borders. They need to make a rule: If you don’t have a work agreement with a specific company, you can’t come in.”

But Marie Sirra, a janitor who lives in a northwestern suburb afflicted by the violence, expressed horror at such sentiments. “My biggest fear is that all of this is going to give more power to the right wing,” she said, referring to the National Front, a whites-only party that advocates expulsion of foreigners.

“I’m afraid we’ve reached the point of no return. This could be like a civil war if we keep going in this direction,” Sirra added.

Writing in the French daily Le Figaro, international affairs specialist Andre Grjebine warned that Islamist gangs are using the violence to recruit members in the suburbs, while mainstream French citizens appear to be losing patience with what they see as a threat to their way of life.

“Intolerance and aggression toward immigrants could grow, as will voter support for the extreme right-wing party in the next election,” Grjebine wrote.

Members of the National Front staged a small demonstration in Paris Wednesday, unveiling a new campaign with T-shirts declaring, “France: Love it or leave it.” The party, which enjoyed shocked the French political establishment when its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, won 17 percent of votes in the first round of presidential elections in 2002, only 3 percentage points behind incumbent President Jacques Chirac.

But the backlash was not limited to white French Christians. In the suburban town of Aulnay-Sous-Bois north of Paris, a Turkish Kurd restaurant owner, who would identify himself only as Ali, said he agrees with Sarkozy’s tough language.

“I work for a living. When I see these immigrant kids outside smoking marijuana late at night, I can’t help but wonder: Where are their parents, and why aren’t these boys at home?” he said. “We’re living in fear because they think it’s their right to roam the streets. In a democracy, it’s not supposed to be like this.”

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