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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.

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Whether the banlieue will give rise to further unrest is something no one can agree on. They are the front line of the tensions between white Europeans and the Continent's growing minority – mostly Muslim – population. Ongoing low-level confrontations between police and locals have the potential to explode, as do the constant contradictions facing banlieue residents.

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France claims the greatest social equality in the world and officially bans ethnic and religious identification, but it also gave its far-right party 18 percent of the vote (its highest vote ever) in recent presidential elections. Much of Marine Le Pen's campaign targeted minorities, implying they were unwanted and un-French.

"Some media have called these [2012] elections trivial, but that is absolute nonsense. In fact there is a huge issue in France about who we as French are and what we want," says Karim Amellal, who grew up in the banlieue and now owns a media company in Paris. "The reality of the suburbs is a challenge to the reality and practice of the principles of the French republic. What is more basic than that?"

Defying caricature 

The town of Clichy-sous-Bois is part of Seine-Saint-Denis, a 100-square-mile zone separated from Paris by the périphérique that is home to France's highest concentration of minorities.

Clichy was built after World War II as an upper-middle-class town, but when no train line to Paris was built, those who could afford to leave did. Dormitory towers sprang up for the new residents, mostly workers from former French colonies in African and Arab colonies.

By the late 1990s, "You were seen as a loser if you were white and still lived here," a local official says. There is still no train link to Paris.

Unlike urban slums in the United States, the suburbs are not a wasteland. Clichy is depicted in French media as run-down tenement towers. But there are also neighborhoods of charming single-family homes and small roads running through acres of blooming trees and fields. Many towns feature old granite churches, outside of which locals wait for buses. The innovative architecture and Art Deco painting of upper- and middle-class areas are beginning to appear here.

"When I came out here to work, everyone said, 'It's awful. Be careful. It's dangerous,' " says a French civil servant of Algerian heritage. "But now I plan to move here. There is life. There are young people playing. You don't see that in Paris. It is real. Yes, there are problems, but I like it," he says. Nearby, children with their faces painted to look like forest animals stream out of a stores.

Yet there are few gathering places. Community energy is high, but there is no Parisian culture of corner cafes.

"We don't have a cinema, a swimming pool, an unemployment office, any cafes, or hangouts," says Youssef Sbai, director of a children's center in the apartment complex Bois du Temple Towers, where he was raised. "But after the riots [of 2005] they did build a big new police station."

'A beautiful woman with a bad reputation'

In Villiers-le-Bel, near Clichy, young men mill around at the entrances of long apartment complexes. When a police car struck and killed two teens here in 2007, it resulted in riots. Police mistreatment is the root of most of the banlieue grievances, says Catherine de Wenden, head of the sociology section at Sciences Po in Paris.


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