What Harlem is to America, La Courneuve's Cite des 4,000 is to France. At first glance, La Cite doesn't look like the ultimate symbol of race and poverty. It is a bit dull, perhaps, with blocks upon blocks of sterile modern, white, steel and glass rectangles spreading out on the plain just north of Paris. Still, it looks livable. Indeed, it is an improvement over the shantytown where immigrants lived before La Cite was built 20 years ago.
Enter one of the buildings, though, and the true La Cite emerges. The stench is overwhelming: The elevators have become bathrooms.
Nasty graffiti mar the walls. Many windows are broken. Images of Beirut come to mind - an exaggeration, of course, but consider the desolation some statistics suggest. Twenty-one percent of La Cite's rents went unpaid last year. Even more ominously, police estimate that the ghetto counts one firearm per household.
Violence seems to be a way of life here. It usually pits immigrant against native. The most publicized incident took place last summer when a white resident shot dead a 10-year-old Algerian youth because he was making too much noise.
The daily rhythm of muggings and holdups is less spectacular. But it is just as destructive, making everyone cautious and creating an atmosphere that exacerbates racial tensions.
''I want out,'' says Fabienne Treuvey, hugging her month-old baby girl, Jade. ''All the young North Africans are unemployed, and they've taken to drugs and crime. They should go back home instead of ruining my home.''
For the immigrants, the situation is equally intolerable.
''You can't sleep safely,'' says 18-year-old Muhammad Ali, a Tunisian who has lived here for three years. ''No one goes out at night, and during the day, if you go to the cafe, the French look at you as if you are a thief.''
As summer approaches, the tension here is rising above its usual low boil. Summer means Ramadan and its clamorous evening festivities. Mix the holiday with blistering heat, and many ask whether the stew will boil over into a French version of Brixton or Toxteth.
Yet there is another possible outcome, a peaceful one. Behind all the enmity, the daily necessities of life draw the different groups together. Slowly but surely French and foreigner have become dependent on each other.
One of La Cite's only patisseries, for example, is run by Tunisian Takir Ali. No sugary Arab pastries come out of his ovens. Only crispy, tender baguettes that French customers carry away to the dinner table.
Ali says he wants to go back to Tunisia - ''I work here, but I'm not comfortable here'' - yet when pushed, he admits this is impossible. Where would La Cite's residents get their baguettes? And how, after all, could Ali make a living back in Tunisia? Selling baguettes to Arabs?
''Everybody buys my bread, French and Arabs,'' Ali says. ''Isn't that normal? I make good bread, and we have to eat, after all.''