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Page last updated at 07:36 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 08:36 UK

US reaches out to French banlieues

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

Yassine and his classmate, Massinissa
Yassine and his classmates now have a better understanding of US society

Performing a rap in his "I Love N.Y." T-shirt and baseball cap, high school student Yassine looks like an all-American boy.

But like most French teenagers from the Paris suburbs, Yassine and his classmate, Massinissa, have a love-hate relationship with the United States.

While they worship its culture and music, they despise its involvement in Iraq and the support it offers Israel in the Middle East conflict.

But having just returned from a trip to Harlem, which was entirely paid for by the US government, Massinissa says his eyes have been opened.

"We have the same problems here as they do over there - a problem of negative image. We must break this image."

Muslim community

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, US embassies have been instructed to reach out to second- and third-generation immigrants from North Africa and Pakistan.

James Bullock
We're trying to... reach out to young people who haven't made up their mind yet who they are or what they think of America
James Bullock
US Embassy in Paris

No-one in the US forgets that the only person to be charged in connection with those attacks so far has been Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national.

With five million Muslims, France houses Europe's largest Muslim community and the US is keen to keep them on side.

But James Bullock, the public affairs counsellor at the US Embassy in Paris, insists it is not about identifying terrorist cells in the suburbs but about making sure they never start up in the first place.

"We're not a security agency, we're not working with the police," he says.

"We're trying to identify future leaders and... to reach out to young people who haven't made up their mind yet who they are or what they think of America."

Bad image

Regular outbreaks of violence in the poor suburbs mean America is well aware of the French banlieues' bad image.

Riots in Toulouse in 2005
More than 30 French towns and cities were affected by 2005's rioting

Two and a half years ago, the French government was forced to call a national state of emergency after three weeks of violent rioting in suburbs across the country.

The protests were largely about social exclusion, but in the US they were often reported as "Muslim riots".

Catherine Withol, an expert on the banlieues, believes that is what has prompted the US to focus its attention on the sink estates.

"They really fear there could be Islamic networks in these places and they think that the more there is [social] exclusion, all the more there will be mobilisation," she says.

Although he recognises the US is courting Muslim immigrants, journalist Mohamed Hamidi still welcomes the interest from the other side of the Atlantic.

They try to talk to us - they try to understand why Muslims from France don't feel integrated in French society
Mohamed Hamidi
Journalist

He was invited to visit the US after his blog on the banlieues, Bondy Blog, caught the eye of US officials.

He feels the country is more interested in the banlieues' problems than his own government.

The French authorities' offer of help for the under-privileged estates have come far too late, he says, but the US is "more pragmatic" and has stretched out a hand to the young people from the banlieues who want to succeed.

"They try to talk to us. They try to understand why Muslims from France don't feel integrated in French society," he explains.

'American dream'

Back in their classroom in the Paris suburbs, the high school students are sorting through the souvenirs from their recent trip to the US.

Ouardia
Before I went to the States, I had a bad opinion of America and its policies... now I have another opinion - my own opinion - and it's good
Ouardia

Once hostile to the idea of a powerful US, these young people now feel they have a greater understanding of American society.

Massinissa and his friend Ouardia talk ecstatically of the "American dream" and Ouardia laughs when challenged about her enthusiastic use of language.

"Before I went to the States, I had a bad opinion of America and its policies... now I have another opinion - my own opinion - and it's good!" she says.

A misguided public relations exercise or a benevolent gesture of transatlantic solidarity?

Whatever the motivation, the US clearly has its eye on the French banlieues.


SEE ALSO
Police fired on in Paris suburb
03 Mar 08 |  Europe
Riots in Paris suburbs replayed
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Paris riot probe confirms chase
07 Dec 06 |  Europe
Timeline: French riots
14 Nov 05 |  Europe


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