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France's Immigrant Suburbs Outside Mainstream Politics and Angry

French voters go to the polls Sunday in a second and final round of balloting for a new president. The contenders are conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal. But, in many of the country's predominantly immigrant suburbs, there is a sense of anger and of being left out of the mainstream political process, as VOA's Sonja Pace found out in Clichy-sous-Bois, on the eastern edge of Paris.

The place is France, the music North African, and it's what you're likely to hear in the mostly immigrant-origin suburbs of France's major cities.

Clichy-sous-Bois lies just outside Paris, but its high-rise housing projects seem light years away from the tree-lined broad boulevards of the capital.

There's not much of anything here, says Munir, 28, who lived in Clichy-sous-Bois for 10 years before moving to another neighborhood.

"There's not even a sports stadium," he said. "Look around - there are no jobs. They keep promising us a youth center, no one is doing anything about it. Nothing has changed."

Clichy-sous-Bois gained notoriety in October 2005 when the death of two teenagers sparked nighttime riots that spread to other neighborhoods and other French cities.

The French presidential campaign sparked renewed interest in the suburbs, as candidates wooed potential voters.

But, Munir says the candidates make promises, yet there is no indication they are really listening.

"Frankly,no, they're not listening," he said. "We need jobs and more purchasing power. The euro has driven prices up, and most people just can't make ends meet."

After the 2005 riots, community groups like AC-LEFEU sprang up in an effort to address the problems of the young people of the suburbs. Part of the acronym of the community association stands for "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," which is the motto of the French Republic.

Samir Mihi, co-founder and spokesman of AC-LEFEU, says the idea was to channel the anger and frustration of these young people into changing the system rather than taking to the streets to burn cars and loot. He says the politicians have not done enough to show they care about what happens in these neighborhoods.

"If you listen to the political speeches you see they aren't really interested in the problems of these young people," he said. "The politicians come to the suburbs only at election time. They come here and flirt, but they should address the real problems - discrimination, unemployment, lack of housing."

But, the seething anger among the suburb youth has been such that most politicians do not venture there.

There was no police presence on the streets where these interviews were conducted. On this particular day, gangs of youths attacked three visiting television crews, including the Arabic language channel al-Arabiya. A VOA television reporter was also attacked and so severely beaten that he required hospitalization. His camera was taken. Some residents told VOA that, in certain areas, gangs of youths, not the police, rule the streets.

The young man, Munir, was the only one who would talk openly on the street. Others declined, and a few said bluntly they do not like or trust journalists.

Many young people here blame the media for painting what they say was a distorted picture during the 2005 riots. They say the media only come when there is trouble.

Samir Mihi says the young people in the suburbs have come to distrust almost everyone from the outside. He says that, while they are, for the most part, French citizens, they do not feel part of mainstream society.

AC-LEFEU has been active in a massive voter registration drive in the suburbs, and Mihi says nearly two million residents have signed up, giving them a chance to have their say in these presidential elections and in the subsequent parliamentary vote.

But, he says what happens after the vote is what will count. There is no denying the situation remains volatile, and Mihi warns that, unless there is real change and the politicians consider the needs of the suburbs, what happened in 2005 could easily happen again.