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Resentment simmers in Paris suburbs, five years after riots

Five years after the poverty-hit suburbs of Paris became a battleground between police and rioters, resentment lingers. Young people, many with immigrant backgrounds, still feel alienated from French society.

Students at a Clichy high school

Youngsters in the Parisian suburbs feel they are shut out

It has been five years since cars and barricades burned for five long days in Parisian suburbs like Clichy-sous-Bois.

The violence started in this town, after two boys hiding from police in an electricity sub-power station were electrocuted and died.

Teenagers hurled Molotov cocktails and stones at police. The uniformed officers hit back at them. The result was four dead, 217 police injured, almost 5,000 arrests, more than 10,000 burnt cars and about 500 damaged buildings.

A burnt-out bus

The riots caused death, injury and destruction

The violence horrified the nation. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, said he wanted to drive the "mob" out of the suburbs with water cannon. Far-right extremist took the opportunity to speak out against immigrants.

These days, President Sarkozy is still intent on maintaining order. A new police station has appeared between Clichy's run-down grey 1970s housing blocks.

For 18-year-old Canon, this simply "makes everything worse."

The conservative government has done away with the neighborhood police patrols introduced by the Socialists. Instead of the neighborhood officers, who would ride through the quarter on bicycles and knew most of its young people by name, the less familiar national police now patrol through Clichy and other Parisian suburbs.

Perhaps a bit harder, but quite normal

"Clichy," says aspiring rapper Canon, "is a town just like any other - perhaps a bit harder, but quite normal."

A Paris market scene

Clichy's youngsters feel shunned by mainstream French society

"When we rap, at least people listen, he says. "When we say something, no one is interested."

Canon's friend Ipek is angry, particularly about the prejudices that the youth of the suburbs face all over France.

The media reports violence, crime and riots, the 17-year-old says. Then the journalists disappear again. Ipek would like to make the situation better. She wants to be a journalist. Most of all, she doesn't want her children to grow up in Clichy, with all its associated prejudices.

"I want them to study like me and to be able to apply for jobs with an address that will make it easier for them - like Paris, for example."

The population of some 30,000 residents of the small town on the northern outskirts of Paris gets by on an average of 9,000 euros ($12,500) a year. The national average is just over 28,000 euros.

Poverty 'spreads like a cancer'

The problems have grown over the decades. In the 1960s, industry needed a workforce and new employees from former colonies flowed into France.

An apartment block in Clichy, viewed through rain-soaked glass

The outlook for inhabitants of Clichy's social housing is bleak

Because apartments in Paris were scarce and expensive, the state and private enterprises built giant housing blocks on the outskirts of the city, as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible.

But the new buildings deteriorated quickly. The infrastructure failed to grow.

To get to Paris from Clichy by bus or rail takes about an hour-and-a-half - for a distance of less than 20 kilometers (12 miles). Whoever can afford to, moves away. The poor are left behind.

"Poverty spreads like a cancer in society," says the mayor of Clichy, Claude Dilain, who is also a doctor. Half of the population is under 25. One in every three people is a foreigner, although the French born children of immigrants are automatically French - at least on paper.

A story of success

The family of Said Hammouche comes from Algeria and - despite the disadvantages - he is a success story, heading the Mozaik organization, which works to build young people's confidence, for instance with mock interviews and job advice.

A female student

Studying can help, but sometimes prejudices are too great, says Hammouche

"I had my goal, and I studied business administration. I wanted to go into human resources, and I didn't give up," says Hammouche, adding that not everyone is able to make it.

What the young people from disadvantaged areas lack most of all when it comes to getting their break, he says, is having the right connections and knowing the right way to present themselves.

"The anger in the suburbs, comes from the disappointment," Hammouche says. "The young people struggle, work hard and study only to find themselves standing before closed doors."

Author: Robert Fishman, Paris (rc)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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