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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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UKRAINE

France, Germany firm up ties as European ‘driving force’

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz and France's President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday pledged to drive Europe forward together, as the German leader visited Paris to celebrate 60 years of post-war cooperation despite recent strains.

France, Germany firm up ties as European 'driving force'

The historic partnership has been under pressure from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and broader tectonic shifts.

But in a speech at the capital’s Sorbonne University, Scholz said upholding strong ties was key for the continent.

“The future, like the past, rests on cooperation between both our countries as the driving force of a united Europe,” he said.

Macron said that “Germany and France, because they cleared the path to reconciliation, must become pioneers to relaunch Europe”.

He cited the need to “build a new energy model”, encourage “innovation and the technologies of tomorrow”, and ensure the European Union is “a geopolitical power in its own right, in defence, space and diplomacy”.

The two leaders were then to take part in a joint cabinet meeting. The personal relationship between both men has been less than warm since Scholz assumed office in late 2021.

But “there are structural problems that go further than the personal relationship”, said Jacob Ross, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

The frictions are even felt by the public, with 36 percent of French respondents and 39 percent of Germans telling pollster Ipsos this week that relations were suffering.

Support for Ukraine

The 1963 Elysee Treaty signed between post-World War II leaders Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle provided for everything from military cooperation to youth exchanges.

Since then, France and Germany have often built the foundation for joint crisis response in Europe, and other nations are looking to them again now.

Top issues to address include the Ukraine conflict, climate and energy, and European competitiveness faced with a new wave of “buy-American” subsidies in the United States.

Scholz on Sunday pledged continued support to Kyiv after Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbour almost 11 months ago.

“We will continue to provide Ukraine with all the support it needs for as long as necessary. Together, as Europeans, to defend our European peace project,” he said.

But Germany is still undecided on whether to deliver — or allow allies to deliver — its Leopard 2 battle tanks to Kyiv.

READ ALSO: Poland slams ‘unacceptable’ German stance on Leopard tanks

The impression that “there is a united coalition, and that Germany is standing in the way is wrong”, newly installed Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said Friday.

France has been pressing Germany to move faster, dashing ahead on mobile artillery in April and light tanks this month.

Elsewhere, moves to jointly develop next-generation fighter jets and tanks are dragging, while France is absent from a 14-nation Sky Shield anti-missile initiative led by Germany.

Ross suggested that part of the problem lies in France’s clinging to a historic self-image as a sovereign, nuclear-armed power with a seat on the UN Security Council — in contrast to a Germany happy to leave defence questions primarily to the US in recent decades.

There are early signs of change on both sides, with France re-energising its NATO role since the Ukraine invasion and Germany’s 100-billion ($108 billion) revamp of its armed forces.

‘Put to the test’

Away from defence, interlinked trade and energy conundrums are hitting both France and Germany.

For Berlin, “things have got very complicated because Germany’s economic and political model is being put to the test,” said Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, a former French ambassador to Berlin.

Without cheap Russian gas or nuclear power, Berlin has been forced to turn back in part to coal as renewables still cannot yet make up the difference.

France, by contrast, is scrambling to repair and replace its ageing nuclear reactor fleet.

Some in Berlin now fear China will follow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by making a grab for Taiwan — which it sees as a breakaway province — potentially severing Germany from a vital market.

And leaders across Europe fear distortions in transatlantic trade from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which will pour billions of dollars into American-made, climate-friendly technologie.

Macron is expected to push Scholz Sunday to join a joint response, after securing backing from Spanish leader Pedro Sánchez this week.

For France and Germany in particular, there are also fundamentals that must be tended to preserve the relationship into the future.

The relationship has become less real” for ordinary French and Germans, said Gourdault-Montagne, and “lost some of its emotion”.

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