x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Francois Hollande has €5bn peace plan for France

The French president has pledged to spend huge amounts of public money in a bid to stimulate economic activity in the poorest suburbs as part of his attempt to harmonise divisions and reduce soaring unemployment.

France's president Francois Hollande speaks with residents and journalists in Clichy-sous-Bois, outside Paris. Bertrand Langlois / AFP
France's president Francois Hollande speaks with residents and journalists in Clichy-sous-Bois, outside Paris. Bertrand Langlois / AFP

The dream is uncomplicated and, in the eyes of all who wish for less troubled relations between France and its large immigrant population with roots in the Muslim word, a noble one.

It involves using public money to stimulate economic activity in the impoverished, crime-ridden edge-of-city suburbs, improve housing conditions and reduce alarming rates of unemployment.

And the socialist government of François Hollande has announced plans to encourage the kind of action needed for the dream to be fulfilled.

The president has set ministers the task of finding the effective remedy to a nagging problem that has eluded his successors.

Though beset by a stubborn economic crisis, he has promised €5 billion (Dh24.25bn) towards urban regeneration and job creation in the hope that this will attract three times as much again in private investment.

Mr Hollande admits a comprehensive response must be seen as a long-term objective, hinting that real results could be attainable within two five-year presidential terms ending in 2022. But both his centre-right predecessors at the Elysée, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, tried their own approaches without success.

A common complaint is that there are bright young people with diplomas among the jobless. Tapping into this human resource, say the optimists, would translate into benefits for business and society.

But the reality, to date, is bleak. There is little sign of true community harmony as the indigenous French express horror at sporadic lawlessness and, as each initiative fails, a sullen community sees itself the victim of deprivation and discrimination.

Young Muslims who persevere with their education still see the route to good careers obstructed by prejudice; many leave for what they believe to be the more welcoming environments of London, the United States or the wider francophone world, or consider opportunities in Arab countries.

In theory, Mr Hollande is better placed than his opponents to break the mould. He captured the bulk of the low-income Muslim vote in last year's elections and French nationals of foreign origin look to him to improve their lives.

A visit to the north-eastern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois gave him a symbolic opportunity to outline the new initiative. There, in 2005, three weeks of nationwide rioting was triggered by the deaths of two teenagers who were electrocuted in an electricity substation while hiding from police.

Clichy suffers from an unemployment rate of more than 20 per cent, nearly twice the national average, that grows to 40 per cent among young people. Rates are even higher elsewhere.

Mr Hollande's announcement in July came just two weeks after disturbances in another suburb, Trappes, south-west of the capital. The immediate cause was the police's alleged mistreatment of a young Muslim woman stopped and questioned in the street because she was wearing a niqab, banned in public places since 2011.

Her husband was accused of assaulting an officer; the family, of French Caribbean origin, said police had dealt too aggressively with them.

The government's desire to help such areas goes hand in hand with assurances to middle-class voters that mob rule will not be tolerated.But the government is anxious to demonstrate it sees security as only one of the issues needing attention.

François Lamy, the minister responsible for urban policy, has presented the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, with his vision of how the renewal plan could be implemented.

The available aid would be concentrated in areas of acute need. A consultation process will begin in mid-October, leading to the details being incorporated in a new law passing through the French parliament.

The plan is intended to provide assistance in more than 1,300 districts, all considered to suffer serious poverty, but attaches the highest priority to 230 of these.

Companies that hire employees under 30 years old who have been jobless for at least a year will receive €5,000 for each recruit with the aim of creating 10,000 such jobs in three years. With this and other incentives, the government hopes to create state-sponsored jobs and upgrade living accommodation in some of the country's poorest estates.

Other details will become clear as the local authorities and community groups are consulted and parliament debates the proposals. What is already known, however, is that the government wants to promote new contracts in housing, transport, employment and education.

In the past, there has been a gulf between the goals of schemes to aid the suburbs and the level of available finance. Some initiatives have faltered when funding has been frozen.

So it may be significant that the Hollande plan has the enthusiastic backing of the state financial watchdog authority, the court of auditors.

Even so, it would be an exaggeration to suggest the latest initiative is widely seen as a complete solution.

It is four years since Didier Müller, the president of a community group in the Parisian suburb of La Courneuve, told The National: "If you are called Mohammed or Mamadou, you already have a lot less chance of employment than if your name is Gilles or Jean.

"If you pass your baccalaureate [higher school certificate] and want to go to university, the words La Courneuve on your application mark you down straight away as suspect."

Few would claim much has altered. Aneld, a national association of "local councillors for diversity", is fighting for change but its president, Kamal Hamza, says past promises of action did not lead to "anything concrete".

Observers of life in the French banlieues, or suburbs, and home to successive generations of immigrant families from the old colonies in the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, recognise an unchanging cycle.

An arrest or search arouses anger, riots break out and, sooner or later, discussion turns to the poverty and discrimination experienced daily by residents.

Then, with or without measures to intensify security, the authorities announce a project to invest in the suburbs, generate employment and improve housing. And, soon after that, people come to the conclusion little has changed for the better.

France's links with North Africa in particular led to massive post Second World War immigration producing Europe's largest Muslim population, usually put at between five and seven million out of a population of approximately 63 million. For second- and third-generation descendants of the original newcomers, one result has been a serious identity crisis: the young who feel neither completely French nor entirely Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian.

But there is broad agreement that simply enabling the occasional individual to set up as a baker or fast-food restaurateur is not enough to counter these feelings of alienation. There must be new businesses bringing more significant and sustainable job opportunities; employers and educational institutions outside the banlieues need to abandon their suspicion of those from within them.

Mr Hamza says politicians, the media and activists must also find ways of allowing banlieues to shake of their image as places of systematic crime and violence.

"And we need to persuade young people that burning cars is not the only way they can be heard," he says.