VAULX-EN-VELIN, FRANCE — NEATLY trimmed lawns and tree-shaded pedestrian walkways border the commercial square of this eastern suburb of Lyon. A plaque proudly proclaims the dedication of Vaulx-en-Velin's central rehabilitation project. The plaque was unveiled on Sept. 29, amid much pomp and self-congratulation by officials, who said they were celebrating an example for all of France of how to renovate the country's worrisome high-density, highly subsidized suburbs.
Just one week later, however, the large supermarket and smaller markets and shops around the renovated square were pillaged and torched in the worst urban rioting that France has witnessed in nearly a decade.
The four consecutive days of burning and rock-throwing in Vaulx-en-Velin - touched off by the death of a young passenger on a motorcycle whose driver was trying to evade the police - have plunged France into a reassessment of its approach to urbanization. They have also focused renewed attention on the 400 ``problem neighborhoods'' identified by the government on the poorer fringes of the country's major cities.
The conditions common to many of these neighborhoods have awakened fears of what is increasingly referred to as an ``Americanization,'' or ghettoization, of the French urban periphery. Here clusters of high-rise public-housing projects were built, for the most part in the 1960s and '70s, to accommodate an accelerated rural exodus and the arrival of immigrant workers, mostly from poorer southern European countries.
But now these neighborhoods are home to growing concentrations of nonwhite French or immigrants from outside Europe - mostly North African Arabs. French people uncomfortable with different cultures continue to abandon these communities, leaving the problems of unemployment, education, discrimination, and delinquency that trouble them only more concentrated.
Coupled with a week of demonstrations by French public school students protesting the lack of security and crumbling conditions in their high schools, the ``events of Vaulx,'' as they are now simply called, have also intensified concerns over such issues as urban safety, a developing drug trade, and the growing presence of personal weapons.
After more than $30 million was spent over four years to renovate 2,000 apartments and improve the commercial center, the attitude among many Vaulx-en-Velin officials was, ``If this doesn't work here, it can't work anywhere.''
But the chronic problems of Vaulx-en-Velin are common to other French suburbs. Nearly 20 percent of the population is without work, and half do not earn enough to pay taxes. In a city of 45,000, only a few hundred youths achieve a high school level needed to even contemplate a college education.
``Probably 30 percent of our population are people who live on a string,'' says Jocelyne B'eard, chief of neighborhood social development for Vaulx-en-Velin.
As in many developing countries, half of the population here is under 25 - but half of the employable youth have no jobs. What's more, a majority of the young are Arab, or black, or from one of the 48 nationalities living here.
``The essential question is whether this country is capable of inventing a new French nationality,'' says Georges Ferreboeuf, Vaulx's director of communication. ``These kids feel they are French, but they are not viewed that way by the broader society, and that realization is unbearable to them.''
What worries others is that there are no easy solutions to the suburb's problems. Unemployment and integration ``are factors addressed over a decade,'' says Robert Courtial, secretary for housing and social action with the Lyon regional government. ``But 10 years are these youths' future.''
A majority of Vaulx's youth clearly reject the recent violence, while expressing an understanding of the frustration felt by their peers. ``I feel sick to sit here and see what happened, it's depressing and makes you want to leave,'' says Miriam, 16.