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France's Riots Focus New Attention on Problems Facing Schools in Troubled Areas 


As violence abates in France, debate is growing about how to address the root causes of two weeks of unrest, largely perpetrated by ethnic-immigrant youths. Some believe schools are a good place to start. From the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, Lisa Bryant takes a look at the problems facing students and educational institutions in disadvantaged areas - which experts say mirrors the larger challenge of integrating minorities in France.

After two weeks of violence that began in these impoverished housing projects, residents of Clichy-sous-Bois are now trying to repair the shreds of community life. That started with a morning coffee gathering this week, bringing together parents, teachers, local lawmakers and social workers like 40-year-old Laurence Ribeaucourt.

Ms. Ribeaucourt works at a college - the equivalent of a junior high school here.

Ms. Ribeaucourt says she and other educational staff have been working hard to improve educational opportunities for youths in this Paris suburb, ringed with tall, drab housing projects scrawled with graffiti. Their work is bearing fruit, she says. But its also been like keeping a lid on a pressure cooker. She was not surprised, Ms. Ribeaucourt said, when things exploded.

The explosion began with the accidental electrocution of two youths of African origin in Clichy-sous-Bois in late October. The incident sparked nightly violence that has since spread to other parts of France. It continues today, although the level of unrest has abated since the French government declared a state of emergency this week.

Now, France's center-right government is looking beyond putting a lid on the violence. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin outlined a series of social initiatives to tackle the roots of the violence, including earmarking more teachers, tutors and other aid for the country's neediest schools.

Educators and experts have long complained that schools in disadvantaged areas are breeding grounds for violence. Instead of being escape routes from poverty, they say, the institutions mirror larger problems of discrimination and unequal opportunities faced by many ethnic immigrants - who are now second-and third-generation French citizens.

Francoise Lorcerie is a educational expert at the National Center for Scientific Research, a French think tank.

Ms. Lorcerie says that in the most disadvantaged areas of France, the situation in some schools is absolutely catastrophic. These schools accentuate the sense of ghettoization and of defeat that blankets grimy housing projects like those of Clichy-sous-Bois. In some cases, 50 percent of kids drop out at the age of 16 years old - the earliest legal age they can leave school.

Iannis Roder agrees. He is a history and geography teacher at a junior high in St. Denis - another poor suburb of Paris.

Mr. Roder says he is not surprised by the violence that has been unleashed by gangs of angry youths around France. He sees it every day in his school. Students abuse each other verbally all the time, he says. When they fight, they fight like savages.

A recent study showed that the level of perceived insecurity in schools has gone up dramatically in recent years, especially in junior highs and in disadvantaged neighborhoods. And in 2003, a controversial book, The Lost Territories of the Republic, described anti-Semitism, racism and sexism that were apparently commonplace in tougher schools with a high percentage of ethnic-Arab students.

Educators and parents are at odds over just how to tackle this violence.

At Clichy-sous-Bois, Aicha Belmiloud, a mother of four, complains that schools are limiting parents ability to discipline their children.

Ms. Belmiloud says parents have no control over their children. If they slap their children, they will complain to the schools. So how, she asks, are parents expected to educate and discipline their offspring?

Violence in French schools is certainly not universal. And although some schools have been torched in recent days, there have been no reports of the unrest spreading to France's educational establishments.

Many experts agree that the French school system - which promotes a theoretically equal education for everyone - is failing its neediest students.

Mr. Roder, the history teacher, says some of his students have an incredibly limited vocabulary. They have no idea what is happening in the world. Yet they are forced to follow the same curriculum as others, and they bring down the academic performance of the entire class.

Laurence Ribeaucourt, the social worker at Clichy-sous-Bois, says her school has been offering special classes and programs for students with learning problems. But funding for those courses will end after next year.

There are plenty of other concerns. Teachers in these low-income areas are sometimes too overworked or dispirited to meet with parents about their children's problems. Some students are too poor to afford school lunch.

Education workers and local officials say they have been sounding the alarm for years. Now, France's riots are focusing new attention on the problems facing schools in troubled areas. But in Clichy-sous-Bois and elsewhere, many are skeptical that the government will offer more than a short-term solution to the education crisis.

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