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World

President Macron Promises Relief To Beleaguered French Suburbs

NOEL KING, HOST:

The suburbs that surround some French cities where many immigrants to France live are troubled. They've got a lot of public housing. They've got high unemployment, discrimination, petty crime. And then more recently, they've seen an uptick in homegrown terrorism. French President Emmanuel Macron has a new plan to help the suburbs. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Fifty-nine-year-old Yazid Kherfi is on a train from Paris to the far-flung suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, where he grew up and still lives today. Kherfi says distance is one of the defining factors of French suburbs known as the banlieue.

YAZID KHERFI: (Through interpreter) People living in the suburbs feel excluded because we're far from Paris and the center. Here, poor people live, and mostly blacks and Arabs. The public transportation isn't great, and at night there's not a lot to do.

BEARDSLEY: Once we arrive, Kherfi drives me around to show me where he hung out as a young man. In his 20s, Kherfi says he became a delinquent. He ended up serving five years for armed robbery. He says not much has changed in these neighborhoods in the past two decades. There's uncollected trash, and rows of streetlights are out. Just a few weeks ago, there were riots in Mantes-la-Jolie after the police held a kid against a radiator and burned him.

KHERFI: (Through interpreter) Sometimes the police are racist, and they're almost always too young and not well-trained. They're often from rural parts of France, and they have no idea about these difficult neighborhoods. So the police are scared of the young people here, and the young people are scared of the police. This has been a problem for 30 years.

BEARDSLEY: One of President Macron's proposals is to build community policing. Another is a multibillion-euro suburb program that includes grants for poor youths to launch startups and subsidies for companies that hire disadvantaged youth. Yasser Louati works for an advocacy group called the Justice & Liberties For All Committee. He says every French president makes big promises for the suburbs, but nothing ever changes. Louati doesn't think that Macron's fixes focused on the private sector will work either. He says the French state has to be firmly engaged to turn the suburbs around.

YASSER LOUATI: I'm talking about proper access to schools, a fair chance of getting a job and protection from police brutality. And, of course, we have to tackle the problem of housing discrimination, poor transportation and the permanent demonization in the media.

BEARDSLEY: But Louati concedes Macron has stood out from other leaders in one area.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Macron's admitted that the French state bears some responsibility for the radicalization of young people in France's poorer suburbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Those we call radicalized were born, grew up and educated in France," said Macron. "They radicalized because we abandoned them."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: Yazid Kherfi eventually turned his life around. He says he was able to because someone had faith in him. Now he takes his RV into the suburbs at night, spreads out a table and talks to young people over a meal and music.

KHERFI: (Through interpreter) I go out with my truck, and I engage these young people because if I don't, someone else will, someone who might be proposing that they go to Syria.

BEARDSLEY: Kherfi says France is paying the price for allowing anger and hatred to build and fester in its suburbs.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Mantes-la-Jolie, France.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAZ BUNDICK MEETS THE MATTSON 2'S "CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.