Sarkozy’s ‘Marshall Plan’ for France’s ghettos

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For almost a year, President Nicolas Sarkozy has been promising a plan to revive France’s most deprived ghettos.

He sent his urban affairs minister, who grew up in housing projects, to investigate. And while the country wondered how much the center-right government would invest in neighborhoods spilling over with the disaffected French-born children of Arab and African immigrants, there were repeats of the ugly riots that made headlines in 2005.

On Friday, Sarkozy rolled out a three-year plan for change. He didn’t put a price tag on it, nor did he set foot in the ghettos.

From behind a lectern in a gilded hall of the presidential Elysee Palace, Sarkozy vowed to add 4,000 police officers in these areas, to provide job training for more than 100,000 youths, and to create “second-chance” schools for drop-outs and others to help the brightest of them get into elite universities. He also said new transportation links would be built to help people in these isolated areas get to work.

And to the young people who enroll for training and to the citizens who work to better their communities, Sarkozy pledged a “new hope.”

“There are in these suburbs we’ve put on the edge of the republic, an entire youth, full of energy, full of courage, full of ambition, who have nothing to do with thuggery,” Sarkozy told an audience packed with leaders from the immigrant areas. “We must help them.”

But the president also exhibited the hard-line attitude that has made him unpopular with some in these areas. Critics say Sarkozy’s comments when he was interior minister that ruffians were “scum” who needed to be “cleaned up with a power hose” were partly responsible for the rioting in 2005. Since then, he has rarely ventured into the low-income banlieues, or suburbs.

“As of tomorrow, a merciless war will start against drug dealers,” he said. “I will take full responsibility for its enforcement.” No neighborhood would be left out of this initiative to fight drug trafficking, organized crime and black marketeering, he said.

Sarkozy made a point of inviting several members of his Cabinet on stage before he spoke, and paid special tribute to his urban affairs minister, Fadela Amara. He recruited the women’s rights advocate and daughter of Algerian immigrants from the opposition party. Amara has traversed France to consult with residents of its poorest areas about what needed to be done.

“Fadela has all my support,” Sarkozy said.

A few weeks ago, in the Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin, Amara released a first draft of the plan that focused on a few of the worst areas rather than dribbling money across a wide spectrum of problems. She said it probably would cost about $2 billion. But Sarkozy reportedly sent her back to the drawing board to beef up her proposals and insisted that he personally would release what he has termed a “Marshall Plan” for the suburbs.

By the end of his announcement Friday, however, it was unclear whether his proposal would cost more or less than Amara’s original plan. The only cost Sarkozy cited Friday was $724.6 million for new bus, train and tram lines.

Several community leaders were disappointed that he didn’t offer more details.

“My first question after he’s put on his show is: Does he really have the means to do this?” said Raymonde le Texier, a Socialist Party senator and former mayor of Villiers-le-Bel. Rioting erupted there in November after two young men on a motorbike collided with a police car and died.

Le Texier praised Sarkozy’s proposal for “second-chance schools” but said, “I want to know where the first chance is? There is no way out of these ghettos for some kids.” Boarding schools for poor, bright children also were “great, but where will he find the means to pay for them?” she asked. “He won’t find the funding; I know it, we all know it.”

The government already is facing a large deficit. Pressed by reporters for a price tag, Rachid Kaci, a Sarkozy advisor, said that each Cabinet minister at Sarkozy’s side Friday would be responsible for financing a part of the program.

“This plan for the suburbs is not just one more plan to save the suburbs,” Kaci told reporters. “Only very few numbers were given. The financial means already exist. . . . Each minister will now take action. What’s interesting is that the general philosophy has changed.”

In his speech, Sarkozy displayed an intensity that some said had to do with a reform-minded president’s commitment to the poor, but that others speculated might be associated with his dip in popularity.

In the last four months, Sarkozy’s poll ratings have dropped by 13 to 17 percentage points, with the left-leaning Liberation newspaper reporting Friday that only 45% of the country approves of how he is doing his job.

Analysts point to two factors weighing against the 53-year-old Sarkozy: the flagging economy and his glitzy lifestyle. Four months after divorcing his wife of 11 years, Sarkozy was remarried this month to an heiress who is a former supermodel and folk singer.

Sarkozy stated Friday that he wanted to address the country’s most disaffected citizens.

Saying the very “idea of the nation” was at stake, Sarkozy asserted that his plan to help the banlieues would be a “priority of my presidency.”

“I want to tell these kids, who are French, nobody will be judged by their skin color or by the address of their district,” he said. “France is all of you, in the diversity of what you are and what you believe in.”

Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times’ Paris Bureau contributed to this report.