France's employment minister yesterday fingered polygamy as one reason for the rioting in the country.

Gerard Larcher said multiple marriages among immigrants was one reason for the racial discrimination which ethnic minorities faced in the job market. Overly large polygamous families sometimes led to anti-social behaviour among youths who lacked a father figure, making employers wary of hiring ethnic minorities, he explained.

The minister, speaking to a group of foreign journalists as the government stepped up efforts to improve its image with the foreign media, said: "Since part of society displays this anti-social behaviour, it is not surprising that some of them have difficulties finding work ... Efforts must be made by both sides. If people are not employable, they will not be employed."

The riots, and the government's slow reaction to the violence, has led to widespread criticism that France's ruling class is out of touch with the rest of the country. Mr Larcher's comments could further fuel the debate and are likely to outrage Muslim and anti- racism groups in France.

They also come as the government considers tightening visa- granting rules and a possible clampdown on polygamous families already living in France.

Although polygamy is illegal in France, visas were granted freely to family members of immigrants until 1993, when visas were banned for more than one spouse. Many wives continued to enter illegally, however and a clampdown, if enforced, could affect families that entered the country before 1993.

Politicians estimate there are 10,000-20,000 polygamous families in France, most from North and sub-Saharan African countries such as Algeria, Mali and Senegal, where the practice is legal.

Polygamy is a taboo subject for most mainstream French politicians. Far-right groups, however, have seized on it to argue that immigrants abuse the French social security system by collecting state benefits for several wives.

The government has also been criticised for refusing to closely analyse demographic patterns in France in order to better integrate minorities. But Mr Larcher said France was so traumatised by the Vichy government's expulsion of French Jews to German concentration camps during the second world war that it still found it unpalatable to allow information to be collected on people's ethnic origins.

He acknowledged that the unemployment rate among young people in France was twice the national average, but said other European countries faced similar problems. He also pointed the finger at the US, where he said the unemployment rate among blacks aged 16-19 was twice that of their white counterparts.

His comments came as Dominique de Villepin, prime minister, made his first visit to the poor Paris suburbs since rioting erupted almost three weeks ago.

Although the unrest has abated substantially in recent days, the French parliament yesterday approved a law prolonging by three months the life of a controversial 1955 curfew law.

Financial Times m/pqdweb?did=926965201&sid=11&Fmt=3&clientId=309&RQT=309&VName=PQD

512 475 7222 (fax)