BOBIGNY, France (AFP) - France's education minister on Wednesday (March 8) called for firm action against a mob of school children in a Paris suburb who smashed public property and assaulted police, leading to 54 arrests.
Chaotic images of tear gas being fired outside a secondary school in the tough northern suburb of Saint-Denis on Tuesday quickly became a political issue less than seven weeks from presidential elections.
"These are very serious acts by vandals that we need to punish severely," Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters at a meeting of Cabinet ministers.
Clashes broke out after the school was evacuated on Tuesday afternoon when students let off smoke bombs inside the premises.
As the school emptied, a group of 80 to 100 pupils began throwing stones at police, setting fire to bins and breaking public property, police sources told AFP.
Secondary schools in Paris have been repeatedly disrupted amid anger over police brutality following the alleged assault of a young black man in early February who says he was anally raped with a baton during his arrest.
France goes to the polls to elect a new president on April 23 and May 7, with immigration, security and worries about defiance of France's state among the key issues.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has made crime and immigration a core part of her campaign and sought to capitalise on the incident in a statement on Wednesday.
"It's unacceptable that vandals threatened the future of our country and put teachers and other pupils in danger," Le Pen said, criticising the Socialist government for failing to react.
"We need to reimpose order in the republic and win back the lost territories of our country," Le Pen added.