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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

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What’s in France’s 2023 budget?

France's finance minister has unveiled the government's financial plans for the next year, and says that his overall aim is to 'protect' households in France from inflation and rises in the cost of living - here's what he announced.

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What's in France's 2023 budget?

The 2023 Budget was formally presented to the Council of Ministers on Monday, before economy minister Bruno Le Maire announced the main details to the press. 

The budget must now be debated in parliament, and more details on certain packages will be revealed in the coming days, but here is the overview;

Inflation – two of the biggest measures to protect households from the rising cost of living had already been announced – gas and electricity prices will remain capped in 2023, albeit at the higher rate of 15 percent, while low-income households will get a €100-200 grant. The energy price cap is expected to cost the government €45 billion in 2023.

EXPLAINED: What your French energy bills will look like in 2023

Property renovations – the MaPrimeRenov scheme, which gives grants to householders for works that make their homes more energy-efficient, will be extended again into 2023, with a budget of €2.5 billion to distribute.

Income tax – the income tax scale will be indexed to inflation in 2023, so that workers who get a pay increase to cope with the rising cost of living don’t find themselves paying more income tax. “Disposable income after tax will remain the same for all households even if their salary increases,” reads the 2023 Budget.

Pay rises –  pay will increase for teachers, judges and other civil servants as inflation is forecast to reach 4.3 percent next year after 5.4 percent in 2022. Around €140 million is assigned to increase the salaries of non-teaching staff in schools. 

New jobs – nearly 11,000 more public employees will be hired, in a stark reversal of President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign promise to slash 120,000 public-sector jobs – 2,000 of these jobs will be in teaching. 

Small business help – firms with fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of less than €2 million will also benefit from the 15 percent price cap on energy bills in 2023. The finance ministry will put in place a simplified process for small businesses to claim this aid. In total €3 billion is available to help small businesses that are suffering because of rising costs. 

Refugees – In the context of the war in Ukraine, the government plans to finance 5,900 accommodation places for refugees and asylum seekers in various reception and emergency accommodation centres. The budget provides for a 6 percent increase in the “immigration, asylum and integration” budget.

Cigarettes – prime minister Elisabeth Borne had already announced that the price of cigarettes will rise “in line with inflation”.

Ministries – Le Maire also announced the budget allocation for the various ministries. The Labour ministry is the big winner with an increase of 42.8 percent compared to last year, coupled with the goal to reach full employment by 2027. Education gets an increase of €60.2 billion (or 6.5 percent more than in 2022), much of which will go on increasing teachers’ salaries, while the justice and environment ministries will also see increased budgets.

Conversely, there was a fall in spending for the finance ministry itself.

Borrowing –  the government will borrow a record €270 billion next year in order to finance the budget. “This is not a restrictive budget, nor an easy one – it’s a responsible and protective budget at a time of great uncertainties,” said Le Maire. 

The government is tabling on growth of one percent, a forecast Le Maire defended as “credible and pro-active” despite an estimate of just 0.5 percent GDP growth by the Bank of France, and 0.6 percent from economists at the OECD.

The public deficit is expected to reach five percent of GDP, as the EU has suspended the rules limiting deficit spending to three percent of GDP because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Parliament

The budget plans now need to be debated in parliament where they are likely to face fierce opposition. Emmanuel Macron’s centrist LREM party and its allies lost their majority in elections earlier this year.

Macron also plans to push ahead with a pension reform that would gradually start pushing up the official retirement age from 62 currently, setting up a standoff with unions and left-wing opposition parties.

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