French Election Puts Spotlight On Slums

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As France heads into a fateful presidential election April 22, the candidates are full of promises and plans for fixing the slums that erupted in violence two years ago. Here in the decaying concrete housing project of Les Bosquets, 10 miles northeast of Paris, a half-dozen apartment blocks are to be razed in a $600 million renovation.

But not everyone seems pleased. Distrust runs so deep that many in Les Bosquets fear change will deprive them of the only certainty they havethe comfort of social structures formed in their ancestral homelands.

“The buildings are dirty. But look at the people inside. They’re nice,” said Sabrina Bel Bachir, 21, who has lived all her life in Les Bosquets.

“People never go out,” said Karim Bousseba, a 33-year-old electrician. Their French is poor, and all they know is welfare, he said, sipping coffee in a cafe where men and boys play rummy. “What are they going to do somewhere else?”

Les Bosquets“the Groves”was carved from a forest in a corner of Montfermeil, described by Victor Hugo in “Les Miserables” as a “charming and peaceful village on the road to nowhere.”

This project and others sprang up after World War II, envisioned as functional French utopias with streets named Utrillo and Picasso. But they have gradually adapted to the immigrant influxwith a halal butcher, Middle Eastern supermarket, mosque and satellite dishes beaming in Arabic, Turkish or African TV.

Les Bosquets is home to 7,500 people, 60 percent of foreign origin, town officials say. Here family values are apt to include polygamy and even forced marriage. Delinquency is rampant, and youths accuse police humiliating them with gratuitous identity checks.

The projects are largely self-sufficient ghettos that lie out of sight and mind of French society. Les Bosquets exists in a separate universe from Montfermeil, the mostly white, middle-class town that for 24 years has elected mayors avowedly hostile to immigration.

Mayor Xavier Lemoine acknowledges conflicts with project youth, many of whom “don’t give a damn about French society.”

“They are reproducing their society of origin . . . They want their own system,” Lemoine said. “The real challenge today in the suburbs is a cultural challenge.”

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But the election is having a galvanizing effect in poor neighborhoods where some 5 million people live and where turnout is traditionally low. A voter turnout drive there has ratcheted up the number of potential voters, and 96 percent of those sounded in a January poll said they would vote.

Sarkozy and Royal have noticed, and have appointed counselors of North African origin. Royal is likely to benefit most from the project vote, largely because Sarkozy is hated in the projects for having called troublemakers there “scum.”

The renovation plan calls for replacing Les Bosquets’ apartment blocks with smaller buildings, a commercial center and perhaps a tramway. But like dozens of youths questioned, Bel Bachir is skeptical, believing the authorities will seize the opportunity to expel troublemakers from the neighborhood.

“They want to eliminate the ‘scum,’” she said.

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