Riot-Torn French Towns Wait for Change

Lisa Bryant

Two months after the worst riots in nearly 40 years swept across France, life is back to normal. There are few traces of the rioting and arson attacks that exploded in poor, immigrant-heavy suburban housing projects. On Wednesday, French ministers considered a new bill that aims to offer greater opportunities for France's disadvantaged - many of whom are ethnic immigrants. But it is unclear whether the country will address what many consider the root causes of the violence: A decades-long failure to integrate its ethnic minorities.

The boulevards surrounding this town's drab housing projects carry inspiring names: Auguste Renoir, after the celebrated French painter, or the Crossroads of Europe. The reality is much more ordinary: Squat, look-alike apartment buildings - some shedding paint, others flecked with graffiti - where laundry hangs to dry in the icy air.

Two months ago, Aulnay-sous-Bois briefly captured international media attention as one of the epicenters of three weeks of nationwide violence.

The unrest was touched off in a nearby suburb, after two African youngsters were accidentally electrocuted as they tried to hide from police. Police say they were not persuing the teenagers. Roughly 10,000 vehicles were burned in the ensuing mayhem, and hundreds of buildings were damaged.

Police largely blame the violence on ethnic-immigrant youths. Hundreds were arrested, and some spent time in jail.

But the only sounds piercing a recent afternoon were those of children playing soccer at Trois Mille, one of the toughest neighborhoods at Aulnay-sous-Bois. Aissa Diarra, a 45-year-old cleaning woman from Mali, waits for a bus, rubbing her arms to stay warm.

Diarra says calm has returned to this working class housing project, home to many Africans and other ethnic immigrants like herself. She says the youngsters have stopped doing stupid things. But Diarra can not think of anything else that has changed for the better.

Last week, French President Jacques Chirac lifted a state of emergency imposed during the rioting. France's center-right government has mixed get tough strategies to end the violence with promises to address some of its causes: soaring unemployment, dilapidated housing and a general sense of despair and exclusion hanging over housing projects like this one.

But so far, most of the proposals - for better education and job training, for more social services and fairer hiring practices for ethnic minorities - have yet to be realized. And at Aulnay-sous-Bois and elsewhere, people are divided over whether life will really improve.

At Trois Mille, local activist Aissa Diawara is optimistic. Diawara heads a neighborhood association that helps Aulnay's immigrants find jobs and housing. Last November, she was among a group of activists who aired their grievances to French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. She believes he will address them.

Diawara says there may not be any tangible improvements - yet. But she says people are meeting and talking about problems, which they did not do before.

There are signs of change at Trois Mille. A bulldozer chews into a concrete tower - one of several slated for demolition as part of an urban renewal project begun before the riots.

Aulnay's deputy mayor, Frank Canarozzo, also argues life in projects like Trois Mille is getting better - even if people do not yet realize it.

Canarozzo says youngsters here say the town does not offer enough training and other social services. But he notes the rioters destroyed some of the structures that existed. He says the riots sent a bad message.

Many French agree. Recent polls show the majority supported the government's tough crackdown on the rioters. And one survey published last month found that one in six respondents believe there are too many immigrants in France.

France's economic doldrums are another barrier to a better life for ethnic immigrants here. The French government has urged public and private sector employers to hire more minorities. But unemployment in France is nearly 10 percent - and more than double that figure in low-income neighborhoods like Trois Mille.

Djamel Balarbi is associate director at a job placement agency. Since the riots, he says, young people looking for work face an additional obstacle.

Belarbi says prospective employers are even more wary of job applicants from places like Trois Mille than they were before. Since the riots, he says, they see local youngsters as the ones who burn and destroy - even if many did not participate in the violence.

Twenty-five-year-old Mamadou Kamara agrees. Kamara is an ethnic Mauritanian who has been out of work for a year. Sitting on his motorcycle at Trois Mille, Kamara describes a recent interview for a job as a sound engineer at a music studio. He was asked if he participated in the riots. Kamara said no. But he has heard nothing from the studio since then.

But Salem Bessad is more hopeful about the future of Aulnay-sous-Bois - and of its residents. The 34-year-old Algerian owns a small computer business. He acts as a mentor to some young ethnic immigrants.

Bessad says it will take time to improve life in neighborhoods like Trois Mille, but he says he is optimistic. He lives and works in a town which is dynamic - and which is doing more than just talking about the problems it faces.

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