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French President to Announce Plan for Poor Suburbs

More than two years after violent suburban riots tore through France, the country's president Nicolas Sarkozy will unveil an ambitious plan Friday to turn around some of the poorest and grittiest towns that are home to many African and Arab immigrants. Lisa Bryant visited the northern Paris suburb of Sevran, one of the poorest towns in France, and files this report about what has changed, and what has not, since the 2005 violence.

The small employment agency in downtown Sevran is just about to close for lunch, but about a dozen young people are still here, surfing the Internet for job offers and working on their resumes.

The job seekers include teacher Badreddine Ghomari, 26, who is hoping to land a job in the civil service. It is no help that his last name is North African. He says he has not directly experienced discrimination in France's job market, but adds that he knows plenty of people who have.

Ghomari says a cousin of his got no response from employers he solicited for jobs. Then he sent off an application with an assumed French name on it and received a positive reply.

Another job seeker, Samir Bendjibbour, 25, agrees that work is hard to come by. Just being a young person in this working class French suburb is difficult, says Bendjibbour, who wears a yellow sweatshirt, gold earring and sparkling silver shoes.

Bendjibbour says Sevran is a town where young people have no future. He says there is no way to earn money legally so young people take illegal jobs, which in Sevran, often means dealing drugs.

Sociologists say the same sense of hopelessness helped trigger two months of nationwide rioting in late 2005. The violence began in Sevran and other suburbs ringing Paris and hopskotched to other parts of the country. France was rocked again by three days of clashes between suburban youth and police last November.

In a poll published this week, 94 percent of French surveyed believe chances are good for more suburban violence.

In Sevran, the burned out shells of vehicles have disappeared. But local officials and social workers say little else has changed since the riots in this town, where about half the population is of immigrant origin.

The local unemployment rate is about 17 percent, about twice the national average. Among young people under 26, it soars to 35 percent.

Didier Caheric is head of social programs at one Sevran housing project.

Caheric says many people have a hard time making ends meet. They have health problems, housing problems, hygiene problems. He says there is also plenty of crime and drug trafficking and not enough police.

Jean-Francois Delannoy is associate director of Competence-Emploi, a nongovernmental employment agency in Sevran.

Delannoy says there are few businesses in town, so there are very few employment opportunities. The most likely jobs are at nearby Charles de Gaulle airport . But many residents are unable to afford cars to get there and public transportation is spotty.

President Sarkozy has vowed a Marshall plan for the suburbs. And in January, French cities minister Fadela Amara, herself an immigrant from the suburbs, sketched out the basics of the proposals Mr. Sarkozy is to announces Friday. They include 40 thousand new jobs for young people, and more educational and transportation opportunities.

While the proposals have won some praise, Mr. Sarkozy is not a popular man in the suburbs. Many remember his days as France's get-tough interior minister.

So it is no surprise that his suburban revival proposals have largely earned a negative reaction in places like Sevran. That includes from Sevran's communist mayor, Stephane Gatignon.

Gatignon says France is a rich country but money is poorly distributed, leaving towns like Sevran destitute. There are fewer police here than in 2001, he says. There is no money to realize many development projects. He says although France talks about equality and fraternity, the country is increasingly unequal, and Mr. Sarkozy's plan for the suburbs will not improve matters.