In retrospect, it was not a good idea to have left his pistol at home. Called to the scene of a traffic accident in the Paris suburbs last Sunday, Jean-FranÃ§ois Illy, a regional police chief, came face to face with a mob of immigrant youths armed with baseball bats, iron bars and shotguns.
What happened next has sickened the nation. As Illy tried to reassure the gang that there would be an investigation into the deaths of two teenagers whose motorbike had just collided with a police car, he heard a voice shouting: â€œSomebody must pay for this. Some pigs must die tonight!â€
The 43-year-old commissaire realised it was time to leave, but that was not possible: they set his car ablaze. He stood as the mob closed in on him, parrying the first few baseball bat blows with his arms. An iron bar in the face knocked him down.
â€œI tried to roll myself into a ball on the ground,â€ said Illy from his hospital bed. He was breathing with difficulty because several of his ribs had been broken and one had punctured his lung.
His bruised and bloodied face signalled a worrying new level of barbarity in the mainly Muslim banlieues, where organised gangs of rioters used guns against police in a two-day rampage of looting and burning last week.
Not far from where Illy was lying was a policeman who lost his right eye after being hit by pellets from a shotgun. Another policeman displayed a hole the size of a 10p coin in his shoulder where a bullet had passed through his body armour.
Altogether 130 policemen were injured, dozens by shotgun pellets and shells packed with nails that were fired from a homemade bazooka. It prompted talk of urban â€œguerrilla warfareâ€ being waged on French streets against the forces of law and order.
By the end of the week an extraordinarily heavy police presence in Villiers-le-Bel, where most of the rioting took place, appeared to have halted the violence: on top of public transport strikes and student protests against his reform plans, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, could not afford a repeat of 2005, when a similar incident involving the deaths of two youths provoked the worst French urban unrest in four decades.
Things were so tense in the suburbs, however, that the riots could easily erupt again with the prospect of deaths on either side setting off a much greater explosion and, conceivably, the deployment of the army to keep peace.
â€œGiven the weapons being used, it was lucky that nobody was killed,â€ said a policeman.
03 Dec 2007