LES MUREAUX, FRANCE - Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron thinks he has the magic tool for liberating France's blighted suburbs from poverty, violence and discrimination: turn jobless youth and drug dealers into legitimate entrepreneurs.
The hurdles are high. Disillusioned residents of housing projects in towns like Les Mureaux, west of Paris, are deeply skeptical of campaign promises and the political elite. French presidents have tried for decades to fix the suburbs, and repeatedly failed.
But that's not deterring Macron, increasingly labeled by polls as the front-runner in France's two-round April 23-May 7 election. He played with schoolchildren and huddled with community activists this week in Les Mureaux, where the projects bustle with people of Arab and African origin, joblessness is high and voter turnout low.
“Those who live ... where social and economic difficulties or migration are concentrated do not receive the same chances as elsewhere to succeed,” Macron said, encouraging young residents to build their own businesses instead of aspiring to become sports stars.
Unrest in Paris suburbs
Macron's visit came as unrest has shaken suburban Paris in recent weeks, aggravated by the alleged rape of a young black man with a police baton.
Some 50 young people were put in custody Tuesday in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, for allegedly throwing stones at police cars, setting fires and lobbing smoke bombs into a school. The reason for the violence was not clear, but the alleged rape has sparked many angry protests that have turned violent.
Most were released without charges Wednesday night. Eight minors were scheduled to appear before a juvenile court judge Thursday in the nearby town of Bobigny on charges of violence, “armed gathering” and “rebellion.”
“A dyke seems to have given way yesterday,” Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.
Conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon, whose campaign is entangled in its own legal cases, said what happened in Saint-Denis was “a real riot, followed by an urban guerrilla in the streets.”
In Les Mureaux, Ely Mbareck of the Helping Hands association said many suburban youth turn to crime and violence for lack of options.
“It's not an excuse, but we should ask questions,” he said after meeting with Macron. “Often it's due to a lack of jobs, a social misery that put them totally on their knees, and the only outcome they see is criminality, unfortunately.”
Le Pen offers ‘zero tolerance’
Mbareck is worried about rising support for far-right, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen, whose platform includes banning headscarves worn by many Muslim women in the suburbs.
“Here in Les Mureaux, there is a big population coming from migration. They are as patriotic as the others. Now, Marine Le Pen? She is stigmatizing us every day,” Mbareck said.
Reacting to the latest suburban violence, Le Pen's party issued a statement Wednesday saying, “In the face of gang violence, the state must be unyielding and respond with zero tolerance. Marine Le Pen is the only presidential candidate to propose breaking with this culture of permissiveness.”
Youth unemployment is a problem nationwide, with 24 percent of people under 25 registered as jobless last year, compared to the overall national 10 percent rate. But in 751 low-income communities designated by the government as needing priority help, primarily in the suburbs, youth unemployment reaches 45 percent.
An unlikely savior
At first glance, the 39-year-old Macron seems an unlikely savior of the suburbs. A blue-eyed former investment banker, he routinely quotes French philosophers and looks like a product of the coddled white elite.
But he has been trying to remedy suburban problems since well before the presidential campaign. As economy minister from 2014-2016, he encouraged startups and social media platforms such as Uber, which allowed many young men from French suburbs with limited educations to earn a living.
Macron also tried to allow hairdressers to work legally out of their homes since many women, especially in suburban immigrant communities, already run unofficial home hair salons. The proposal ran into opposition from established businesses.
Macron's campaign platform continues in that vein, pushing for more flexible labor rules and support for entrepreneurs.
Changes change little
Les Mureaux was among many suburbs, or “banlieues,” that saw vicious riots in 2005 as youths rose up to protest the death of two teenage boys fleeing from police. In the ensuing years, governments injected money into suburbs like this one, tearing down crime-ridden projects and putting in parkland and new school programs.
But entrenched problems remain.
Left-wing politicians have generally done well in the suburbs but there's no groundswell of support this year for Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon or far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. Apathy feels more widespread, and while some Mureaux voters are inspired by Macron's fresh face, others plan to cast a blank ballot — or not vote at all.