In the suburban ghettos ringing France's cities, marginalized minority residents, particularly youth, struggle to access opportunity in a society that seems off-limits.
Inside the French suburbs, referred to here as "zones of banishment" or "the lost territories of France," the 2012 presidential elections seemed like a good time to wake up the nation.
In a small office in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, a group of mostly Arab and African 20-somethings hit on an idea: Create a "crisis ministry of the suburbs." It would address France's ignorance about the 731 areas ringing the country's biggest cities, known officially as "urban sensitive zones," where most of France's non-European minorities live. Geographically, they are suburbs, but socioeconomically, they resemble the US inner city.
Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe gave the upstart "ministry" a temporary office next to City Hall. For two days, rappers, artists, and activists merrily held court with a French media that rarely makes it to the suburbs and worked on a 120-point reform plan. Several presidential candidates, including front-runner François Hollande, showed up.
But the good vibe didn't last. Days later, Mohammed Merah, a self-styled Islamist radical born to Algerian parents in a Toulouse suburb, shot and killed two soldiers, three children, and a rabbi. The killings seemed to reinforce all the stereotypes and fears about the troubled suburbs.
"The suburbs have no place in the politics of France," says Abdel Elotrani, a young man in a tracksuit who helps lead the Clichy ministry. "We watch TV election debates that raise every subject but the banlieue [suburbs]. We got some attention. Then, after Merah, the subject changed from the suburbs to security and terror again. But we aren't giving up."
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