Sarkozy and the city
Nicolas Sarkozy has picked Villepinte in the Paris suburbs as the site of tomorrow's rally, the biggest he has planned before election day - probably because it houses a conveniently big arena, rather than because he hopes to appeal to local residents - but the location highlights some of the biggest unfulfilled promises of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, those he made to France's run down suburban estates.
In his 2007 campaign, the president promised a 'Marshall Plan' for the banlieues, that would slash the number of teenagers leaving school with no qualifications by two thirds and cut the stubbornly high unemployment rate among ethnic minority young people. His project for the banlieues was launched with much fanfare in 2008, led by new cities minister Fadela Amara, who is herself of North African origin and grew up in the banlieues, and came to national attention leading the campaigning organisation for ethnic minority women 'Ni Putes Ni Soumises' (not whores or submissive). After she became frustrated with the slow pace of progress and resigned from the government in November 2010, the banlieue project was quietly shelved.
In fairness, it has left some positive legacy; urban regeneration projects have led to the bulldozing of some of France's most decrepit Sixties towerblocks and seen them replaced by better housing. The government Association for Urban Regeneration, though, says it needs another 40 billion euros of funding to build all the projects that have been approved and then left on architects' drawing boards; while homelessness charities say an extra million social housing properties are needed in the Paris region alone.
There have been some concrete steps taken to tackle school dropout rates too; children at risk of dropping out now get personalised mentoring, and schools are working much more closely with businesses to help students understand what jobs their qualifications could lead to, and why it might be worth staying on at school. Unfortunately, the statistics tell a much bleaker story; 150 000 French teenagers leave school with no qualifications every year, including 40% of all young people in the banlieues, where half of those have problems with reading and writing French. Their insertion into the job market isn't much easier either - the unemployment rate for young black men is at very nearly 50%. That's double the rate for France as a whole, and it isn't really a product of the current crisis; these are statistics that haven't changed in 20 years. The obstacles between them and a job go far beyond a lack of qualifications; French employers are notorious for binning CVs with the wrong postcode on them, or an African surname. There's also a more subtle form of discrimination that stems from these young people's detachment from the job market; they simply don't know the unwritten codes of behaving in a workplace, like why you shouldn't wear a tracksuit, or swear, or address a job interviewer as 'tu'. During my Masters (in linguistics) I once wrote a paper on whether 'banlieue French' is a dialect or a separate language, so full is it of expressions taken from Arabic and slang unintelligible elsewhere, and that to my mind neatly digs out the root of the problem; France has created a class of the poor so disconnected from the rest of French society they barely speak the language. It's these deep rooted problems that the Sarkozy government hasn't addressed, because it hasn't acknowledged they exist.
I went to meet some of the people trying to bridge this cultural gap.
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