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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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Tibault Baka was born here. He's a compactly built 26-year-old who recently penned a novel and speaks in intense, exact sentences.

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Mr. Baka is greeted like a local celebrity on the streets, which he is. He became a sensation in April, after confronting President Nicolas Sarkozy on TV. In 2007 the leader had promised a "Marshall Plan for the suburbs," but it never materialized. When Mr. Sarkozy starting talking glossily about the banlieue, Baka piped up. "I told him that housing and jobs are a problem everywhere. The problem for us is reputation. Our main problem is image. The banlieue is like a beautiful woman with a bad reputation. The view people outside have of us is what keeps the kids from dreaming big."

Banlieue youths increasingly want to move elsewhere – Canada, Britain, the US. Nearly every young person interviewed wanted to leave or has friends who have left. Mohamed Ghilli, who is of Moroccan descent, got a degree in finance in France and studied English in Britain, but could not find a job when he returned. He now runs a group that helps banlieue youths find jobs, even as he prepares to leave for Singapore if he can't find a job himself.

"Other countries are more dynamic," says Mr. Sbai, who runs the children center in Clichy. "France is stale and not going anywhere, and when you say you are from Clichy, that's an image that is hard to surmount."

Living on 'fault lines'

In October, when Islam expert Gilles Kepel published a major report on Clichy, Le Monde ran a sensational full-page cover headlined, "Suburbs, Islam: The Disturbing Study." Mr. Kepel had indeed found that amid stagnation in the suburbs, identification with Islam had risen among Muslim youths – but it had not led to a rise in radicalism.

"The media in France read that headline and framed every report as if we found a hostile encounter between Islam and France," says Leyla Arslan, co­author of the report. "I said, 'No! Just the opposite!' We were showing that people want equality and normality and the same rights and no special treatment. We found ... kids [were] so excluded that Islam was being turned to as a way to express a deeper identity. That isn't surprising for human beings."

The newest generation of the banlieue are growing up on fault lines. They learn in civics class that France is one of the world's most progressive societies – an egalitarian utopia without issues of race and religion. They study a social compact based on sky-high ideals engraved on government buildings: "liberty, equality, fraternity." But that is at odds with their stigmatized existence in the banlieue. Mr. Amellal describes it as a sense of "schizophrenia."

"Elites on the left deny there is any problem. Discrimination doesn't exist, because we are French! It is impossible! Incredible! Never! On the right, they hate you. Being Muslim is bad. Immigrants are bad," he says.

"Your parents are from Algeria or Morocco. They are conservative, very Muslim. But you are a teenager living in a European city. What do you want? To be successful! To get a job. To be fully French, like the other successful people.

"So this creates all these contrasts in your head," he says. "You become fragmented."


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