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In France's suburban ghettos, a struggle to be heard amid election noise (+video)

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"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."

Who lives in the banlieue?

The suburb residents are mostly Arab or African, often Muslim and poor. One-third live below the poverty line. Some are immigrants, but increasingly they are second- and third-generation immigrants, descended from guest workers who arrived in the 1960s and '70s.

Thirty-nine per­cent of the residents are under age 25, and youth unemployment tops 40 percent (compared with 20 percent and 22 percent, respectively, nationwide).

In a literal way, the suburbs are zones of separation. Those outside Paris are set apart from the capital by the périph­érique – a roaring eight-lane road that encircles the city. On one side is success, culture, and wealth – modern France. On the other is the banlieue – a place Parisians never go. The reverse is also true. In dozens of interviews, most banlieue residents said they had been to Paris only a few times.

Some 7.5 percent of French live in this "other France." Residents call themselves the nation's "illegitimate children" and often say they are second-class citizens. Government investment in the area is historically low, and a hefty portion of the $48 billion spent there in the last decade only arrived after riots in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois.

In 2005, police stopped 15 youths walking home from soccer practice for an ID check. Three ran off, heading to a nearby electrical power station. Two were accidentally electrocuted. The riots that ensued were initially limited to Clichy, but days later a police tear-gas canister was lobbed into a mosque during Ramadan, and the unrest mushroomed.

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