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How will the French government improve life in the poorest parts of the country and end radical Islamist influence?

President Emmanuel Macron promised swift action to improve life in the poverty-ridden French suburbs that in recent years have proved vulnerable to radical Islamist influences. So what exactly is the French government going to do?

How will the French government improve life in the poorest parts of the country and end radical Islamist influence?
French police stand guard in Bobigny, a Paris suburb. Illustration photo: AFP

When Macron first proposed his new law to crack down on the 'separatism' that can lead to extremism, he made an important admission.

“We have created our own form of separatism,” he said on October 2nd, in a speech in Les Mureaux, a suburb far west of Paris.

“We have created districts where the promises of the Republic are no longer kept.”

Macron announced urgent new initiatives to improve life in the banlieues, without which he said they would remain a “fertile soil” for extremist, Islamist propaganda.

Home to several generations of immigrants, the outskirts of cities in France, known as banlieues, struggle with higher levels of poverty, crime and social challenges than the rest of France.

While the problem is nothing new, it has barely improved in the past decade, concluded to a recent report by the Cour de comptes published earlier this month.

The growing threat of Islamist terrorism since the 2010s revealed the impoverished banlieues as especially vulnerable to radical Islamist influences.

Yet since that key speech from Macron, the discourse around the bill has all centred on measures the French government can take to crackdown on separatism practiced by others.

When Prime Minister Jean Castex on Wednesday presented the government’s new draft law to fight religious extremism, the “Law to strengthen republican principles” (formerly known as the “Law against separatism”), a softer promise followed the vow to crack down on those preaching radical ideologies.

ANALYSIS: What is actually contained in France's new law against Islamic extremism?

“We are also going to build more social housing, better administered throughout the territory, in order to break with the logic of ghettos, whether they are ghettos of the rich or ghettos of the poor,” Castex said during Tuesday's press conference.

A deprived housing facility in Monfermeil, one of the poorest areas outside Paris. Photo: AFP

What is the government doing?

In a press statement sent out on Wednesday, the government outlined how it was “mobilising all levels of public action to strengthen the Republican pact where public services are most expected.”

Spanning education reinforcement to housing and justice reform, the government pointed to several points through which this was done, such as strengthening school support and investing €10 billion in “urban renewal” projects to “transform 450 neighbourhoods”, according to a press statement sent out on Wednesday.

This is not, however, new. The €10 billion to renovate urban areas were decided on long ago, at the beginning of Macron's presidency.

 

In mid November, 110 French mayors signed a joint letter demanding the president to act swiftly, as “despite alerts, towns and working class neighbourhoods remain a blind spot.”

Referring to the government's hefty relaunch plan of €100 billion to save the country's economy from the downturn caused by the Covid-19 health crisis, they said “no ambitious measures have been taken to respond to the social and economic distress affecting our municipalities”.

“In view of the current situation, it is clear that the ambition you had formulated to “change the face of our neighbourhoods (…) by the end of the five-year term” has fizzled out,” the mayors wrote.

Macron at a visit focussing on urban planning in Clichy, north of Paris, in November 2017. Photo: AFP

So what is new?

In the plan sent out on Wednesday, the government promised to “reinforce the justice system and the police where the need for proximity is greatest”.

Following a string of police brutality cases over the past weeks, Macron will embark on tricky talks with police unions and local representatives in January 2021 to improve the relationship between police and communities.

ANALYSIS How did France's relationship with its own police get so bad?

 

The government will also create an additional 300 France Service establishments, which are public institutions that provide advice on financial issues, health insurance, pensions and other social services such as unemployment aid.

The government had previously promised to create 2,000 such establishments before 2022.

The prime minister also said he had asked Housing Minister Emmanuelle Wargon to “reinforce social cohesion when constructing social housing establishments”, and make suggestions to parliament.

He did not specify when the government when these suggestions would become public.

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POLITICS

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.

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