The enclaves of poverty on the edges of French cities have fallen further behind the rest of society since a wave of riots in 2005, official data showed on Monday, casting doubt on government pledges to stop the rot.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in 2007, had promised a “Marshall Plan” to improve life in the deprived suburbs after decades of neglect, but a government report showed that the rhetoric had not translated into concrete results.
The troubled neighbourhoods, labelled “sensitive urban zones” or ZUS, are clusters of tower blocks with high proportions of people from an immigrant background, where unemployment, poverty and school drop-out rates are high.
In its latest annual report, the official watchdog that monitors the ZUS found that the gaps in income and jobless rates between the neighbourhoods’ 4.5 million inhabitants and the broader society had continued to widen after the 2005 riots.
“We are still stuck in a ghetto,” said Claude Dilain, mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, the suburb of Paris where the unrest began after two local youths died while fleeing from police.
“We are back where we were before 2005 . . . If nothing is done, we are heading for disaster,” he told Le Monde newspaper.
Dilain is one of many critics who say that the government has not been serious in its efforts to provide better housing and schools for the suburbs and reduce unemployment there.
During a visit to three suburbs last week, Sarkozy set aside broader social themes to focus on crime, promising to improve security by installing thousands of security cameras.
This infuriated social workers and local officials who said it was a narrow, populist reponse to a complex set of problems.
JOBLESS YOUNG MEN
Labour Minister Xavier Darcos said he saw “encouraging signs” in Monday’s report, citing the overall unemployment rate in the ZUS which inched down to 16.9 percent in 2008 from 17.2 percent in 2003.
But the small print showed that the improvement was due to a drop in jobless numbers among women, while for young men aged 15 to 24, the rate increased to 41.7 percent, compared with less than 25 percent for the same age group nationally.
This was particularly worrisome as young men were the group whose anger spilled out onto the streets in 2005.
Then, running street battles between police and hooded youths who torched cars and buildings made entire neighbourhoods look like war zones for weeks, making world headlines and shocking public opinion.
Despite the wake-up call, jobless rates remained stuck at daunting levels in the troubled suburbs, on average more than 9 percentage points higher than in neighbouring streets where residents were better integrated in society, the report found.
It also found that a third of ZUS residents lived under the poverty line set at 908 euros ($1,365) per month, compared with 12 percent in the rest of the country.
Before the economic downturn, the rate was rising in the ZUS while elsewhere it was stable. The report did not provide more recent data taking the recession into account. (Editing by Tim Pearce)