Catherine Field

Clichy-Sous-Bois, France

Clichy-sous-Bois has the feel of an artificial town, parachuted at bureaucratic behest into the featureless fields northeast of Paris and left to rot. In the 1960s, planners chose this spot for a "Grand Ensemble" of public housing to lodge workers who came from North and West Africa in droves to do the dirty, boring and dangerous jobs shunned by the native French. Today, isolated from the capital, Clichy is a Lego landscape of bland apartment blocks, their windows broken and concrete wall defaced by graffiti and stained by November drizzle.

Such is the background for the violence that erupted here late last month and spread to other high-immigration towns studding the Paris outskirts. Night after night, rioting youths have torched cars, hurled rocks at police officers and firefighters and wrecked public buildings as politicians run around in a funk.

Everyone is dismayed, but no one is surprised that this has happened. For years, local politicians, community workers, the police, teachers and residents themselves had been warning about the worsening problems in the powder-keg towns in the Seine-Saint-Denis region. Poor housing, mediocre education, rampant crime, drugs, crumbling family structures, joblessness: All have helped turn these places into pits of boredom and despair where angry, drifting immigrant youths become prey to hooliganism, gangsterism and radical Islam.

All it took was one controversial incident - the accidental death of two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois on Oct. 27 after they fled a police identity check - to unleash the resentment and for it to spread, in ever-bolder crime and brutality, to neighbouring towns. One of the casualties had been Interior Minster Nicolas Sarkozy, who has striven to build a reputation as France's "Mr. Security" with tough talk, street controls and the deployment of fast-response police squads to hot-spots.

The talk today is of Sarkozy's wilting presidential hopes. Yet France must look beyond the ambitions of a single man and dwell on a wider, more painful problem: the integration of some 6 million people.

The violence has hammered France on its faultlines of race and poverty; on the decades-long failure of all governments, left and right, to embrace integration with more than lip service. "We have been engaged in a form of ethnic, social and territorial apartheid, segregation, for at least 30 years," said Manuel Valls, a Socialist legislator and mayor of Efry, a new town south of Paris where half the population has foreign roots.

The crisis also touches on the aloofness of the French government and the double standards that surround it. President Jacques Chirac is notorious for trying to foil investigations into his scandal-tainted financial past. Unsurprisingly, there were only guffaws when he warned rioters that France is a country where justice is firmly applied.

What can be done? Lots. An early priority is to create role models that inspire pride and the desire to emulate among the immigrant underclass and respect across French society. Other than in sports and niches in the music business, Arabs and Africans are absent in the lives of many white French people, appearing in the near-invisible roles of shopkeeper, garbage collector and road sweeper.

In the government, immigrants are given token, low-key roles while the top jobs are routinely given to whites from France's elite-school system. The number of black and brown French people who sit on judges' benches, perform surgery, teach in universities or run a corporation is laughably small. Their absence is blatant on French television.

Fixing such problems requires major changes. People must accept that it is simply not enough to claim that all those living in France are equal and therefore have equal chances. For Clichy and other sad towns, this means better housing, better schooling, smarter policing and support for parents, community associations, moderate religious organizations, teachers and neighborhood cops.

It means encouragement to attend night schools and language courses so that immigrants stuck in the job rut can upgrade their skills. It means transferring tax revenues from rich areas to poor. It means assailing the narrow tribalist culture of elite schools, whose graduates have such a steely grip on the top jobs in politics and corporations.

The goal should be égalité in its truest sense. And it can only be achieved by confidence and goodwill in an effort sustained over a decade or more, and not a palliative inspired by suspicion and fear.

Valls warns of the long road ahead: "We must do everything so that these children, who are French, love France and that France loves them. But it is a long-term media, educational and cultural task, which touches on the very crisis our country is going through."

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