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

In the suburban ghettos ringing France's cities, marginalized minority residents, particularly youth, struggle to access opportunity in a society that seems off-limits.

By Staff writer / May 1, 2012

A food market operates in the shadow of high-rise housing units in the neighborhood of Val Fourre in Mantes La Jolie, a poor Parisian suburb. Many minorities, mostly African and Muslim, live here.

Charles Platiau/Reuters/File

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Clichy-sous-bois, France

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.

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Hollande, the Socialist candidate, is pulling ahead of President Sarkozy.

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.

IN PICTURES: Muslims in France 

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."

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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