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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 November 2005, 00:16 GMT
France responds to urban crisis
By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs correspondent

French PM Dominique de Villepin
Dominique de Villepin has to rescue his boss's reputation
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin seemed to strike the right note in his response to the riots.

But his proposals also showed up the scale of the changes called for in society, to heal the deep wounds that have been exposed.

Mr de Villepin has made a start. No more evasion, and not too much rhetoric about the "values of the Republic."

He has called the situation by its real name - "a crisis in France's cities."

Others have called it a rebellion by an angry underclass.

Mistakes admitted

The French prime minister struck a balance between denouncing the violence and focusing on the future.

The government's response would be "firm and fair". All acts of law-breaking were to be severely condemned.

French boys play soccer near their housing estate in Paris
There is deep alienation among France's ethnic minorities

But France, he acknowledged, had made mistakes in its treatment of its immigrants, especially those from Africa.

Giving a response was a tricky task for a prime minister known for his dashing style but also his record of never having been elected.

He is also known for his romantic notions of French history, but his main goal now is to rescue the sagging reputation of his mentor, President Jacques Chirac.

If Mr de Villepin can fight his way out of this black period he may succeed Mr Chirac as president. If he fails, that prize could go to his arch-rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, or another.

After 12 days and nights of riots and car-burning, the prime minister's much-awaited response was in two parts - restoring law and order, and tackling the problems of unemployment of up to 40%, and deep alienation on the part of many among France's more than five million people of Arab and African descent.

Mr de Villepin stressed the government's first priority was to restore calm and stop the nightly violence in the cities and suburbs. He announced:

  • Continuing large-scale police deployments, including 1,500 extra reserve officers, in troubled areas

  • Swift and effective justice for all law-breakers

  • A judicial inquiry into the deaths of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois, Paris, which sparked the riots

  • New powers for the mayors of French cities and municipalities, to impose curfews and maintain order

  • A restoration of spending programmes (recently cut back) on community associations of all kinds, to promote social solidarity

'Harassment'

Community leaders from France's main ethnic minorities have demanded new laws to end discrimination in jobs and housing, and an end to what they say is police harassment.

They resent police searches for "sans-papiers" - illegal immigrants - and the constant threat of deportation hanging over them. They also want the right to vote, even for those without French citizenship.

In response, Mr de Villepin proposed:

  • A tripling of state scholarships in poor areas, and increased spending on training schemes for under-achieving young people. Some 150,000 children, mainly from immigrant families, are leaving school without any qualifications

    Firefighters tackle a burning bus in Toulouse
    Mr de Villepin said the priority was to restore calm and stop violence

  • A lowering to 14 of the age when children wanting to quit school can begin an apprenticeship; this idea was at once criticised by some teachers' leaders

  • More company job training schemes in problem areas. Immigrants with a college degree complain they rarely even get job interviews because of blatant discrimination

  • An urban renewal programme, re-building districts damaged by the riots and building more humane living environments

  • More, unspecified, sanctions to counter social discrimination of all kinds

The prime minister skirted round the highly sensitive issue of Islam, the religion of the great majority of the immigrants and their offspring.

Many French Muslims demand more public recognition by the state, and resent the law which bans the wearing of Muslim headscarves.

Mr de Villepin said only that in France all faiths were respected. He acknowledged public concerns about the growth of radical Islamic thinking, but played down the urgency of the issue.

The recent riots are called the worst since 1968. The government has taken its stand on how to repair the damage.


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