Sarkozy Offers Plan For Immigrant Areas

Education, Jobs, Security Emphasized

France

   

Washington Post Foreign Service

February 9, 2008

 

By John Ward Anderson and Corinne Gavard

PARIS, France — French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday unveiled an ambitious plan to revitalize the country’s riot-scarred suburban slums with new housing, education and jobs programs and tougher police enforcement, saying France had to eradicate discrimination and provide better security for all of its citizens.

"Whatever your origin, whatever name you have," he told an immigrant-heavy crowd of close to 1,000 guests at the Elysee Palace, the presidential residence, "whatever the color of your skin, wherever you live — if you work, you can gain access to every position of responsibility, including the very highest." Sarkozy himself is the son of a Hungarian immigrant.

"We will no longer have young people who are foreigners in their own country," he declared.

He did not attach a price tag to most of his proposals or say how he would pay for them. That left many critics concluding that his plan for remaking and healing France’s heavily immigrant suburbs — the country’s 16th renewal plan in 31 years — would fare no better than the others.

"There is not one euro in this plan for the suburbs," complained Fran¿ois Pupponi, the Socialist Party mayor of Sarcelles, just north of Paris. "It is not a plan for the suburbs. It is the outline of what a plan for the suburbs could be."

Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, a political and social scientist, said Sarkozy’s plan did have elements in common with the failed plans of the past, but she gave the president high marks for approaching the problem in a different way, even if the funding seemed "slim."

"Urban politics since the 1990s in France had always focused on construction, thinking that giving a new shape to the suburbs would change their inhabitants," she said. "It is interesting that this plan stresses the human factor rather than housing. It shows a clear evolution, a positive one."

African and Arab immigrants complain that they face systematic discrimination in France, even though many are citizens. Unemployment among youths in their suburban neighborhoods often approaches 40 percent. Their anger bubbled over in three weeks of rioting in 2005 that left more than 8,000 cars torched.

During his presidential campaign last year, Sarkozy promised a "Marshall Plan" for the suburban ghettos. Numerous organizations and social activists boycotted Friday’s launch event. Some called it a political stunt to help Sarkozy’s party in municipal elections next month, while others argued that it was inappropriate to inaugurate a ghetto revitalization scheme from among the gilded panels, bacchanalian tapestries and crystal chandeliers of the Elysee Palace.

But Eiji Ieno, 21, the co-founder of a film association that works in the suburbs, said holding the event in the president’s home was a positive gesture. "It is a way to show that we are not left aside anymore. He invited us, it’s a first step. Now we’d like to know if there will be concrete measures behind these announcements," Ieno said. "I just hope that he’ll do what he says."

Sarkozy, who at the time of the 2005 riots was interior minister, was blamed for inciting the rioters by calling them "scum" and threatening to clean them out with an industrial power hose. His tough law-and-order posture was credited with helping him win the election last year, and he has rarely ventured to the suburbs since taking office. Rioting briefly erupted in some Paris suburbs again last fall, which many analysts said showed little had been done to improve conditions.

Sarkozy returned to his tough law-and-order themes Friday. "The first obligation of the state is to assure the safety of citizens, and the first right of any citizen is to be safe," Sarkozy said, pledging to hire 4,000 more police officers for the suburban neighborhoods in the next three years. Many citizens in the communities complain of gang violence, and Sarkozy said that "as of tomorrow, we will be waging a pitiless war against those who are involved in smuggling drugs and those who consume drugs."

He tempered his comments with a blunt recognition that France does not provide equal opportunities or services to minorities. He ordered his cabinet ministers to develop three-year plans to provide equal public services for all.

Sarkozy said a key goal was to eliminate the sense of isolation in suburban towns caused by poor transportation links with surrounding communities. In one of the few initiatives that carried a price tag, he said the government would earmark 500 million euros (about $735 million) for new tramway and bus service between the communities.

Sarkozy said private business would soon begin a program to recruit, train and mentor "several thousand" youths from the suburbs, while the government would create 30 "centers for excellence" in the communities for the best teachers and students.

Financial support to local communities "will be significant," Sarkozy pledged. Among other initiatives, he called for a program that would enable people in government housing to become co-owners of their homes. He said the state would establish "second-chance schools" to lure high school dropouts back to the classroom.

"Let’s do away with the debate on positive discrimination," Sarkozy said, using the French term for affirmative action programs, which are illegal here. "I want action." He said schools in the suburbs would be ordered to submit the top 5 percent of their students for admission to the country’s best universities.

 

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