French President Emmanuel Macron lays out 'new method' to tackle urban poverty

France's major cities are often ringed by crime-ridden public housing estates where immigrants and social problems have concentrated over decades -- along with seething resentment about racism.

Published: 22nd May 2018 10:50 PM  |   Last Updated: 22nd May 2018 10:50 PM   |  A+A-

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during the presentation of the French government's battle plan for the country's most deprived areas, Tuesday May 22, 2018 at the Elysee Palace in Paris. | AP


PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron outlined what he called a "new method" for improving lives in neglected and poverty-wracked areas of French cities on Tuesday after a series of shockingly violent incidents thrust urban crime into the spotlight.

From thousands of extra places in daycare centres to corporate internships for students, Macron pledged to quickly implement "a different method, a different rhythm".

France's major cities are often ringed by crime-ridden public housing estates where immigrants and social problems have concentrated over decades -- along with seething resentment about racism.

Before his speech on the so-called "banlieues", Macron had signalled he did not intend to announce a grand new strategy backed by a pledge of increased public spending -- as many of his successors have done.

"This strategy is as old as I am," the 40-year-old former investment banker told an audience of 600 lawmakers, company bosses and associations at the presidential palace.

Instead, he outlined a series of smaller initiatives, insisting throughout that civil society groups, companies and local officials needed to find solutions at the grassroots level.

A modest increase in local policing and extra resources for schools in deprived areas have already been outlined by the centrist's government, but he announced a new effort to fight discrimination.

France's biggest companies will all be tested in the next three years to see if they discriminate against ethnic minorities via undercover testing of their recruitment processes, Macron promised.

France has already trialled random testing which involves sending out several identical applications for job vacancies with traditional French-sounding names and foreign ones -- then monitoring the reaction.

Masked gunmen

The lack of new figures for investments or landmark new policies led to criticism from some political opponents on Tuesday that Macron's strategy was too feeble. 

His address coincided with shocking images of masked gunmen opening fire in broad daylight on Monday in the southern port of Marseille, which were broadcast by French television channels.

The assailants, dressed in black and carrying Kalashnikov machine guns, recalled some of the homegrown jihadists who have spread terror in France over previous years.

Many of them have come from marginalised immigrant communities in suburban areas of French cities where fears about radicalisation and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam have grown. 

The Marseille incident was thought to be linked to a local turf war for control of the drug trade in the city, where tit-for-tat murders between rival gangs are common.

"By the month of July, I want us to have finalised a roadmap to fight against drug trafficking," Macron said. "It's an absolutely essential component."

Elsewhere in France, police in the southern city of Pau were still investigating the murder of a 32-year-old man in another poverty-ridden area who was beaten to death by a gang of teenagers on Friday evening.

'Not much in it'

Reacting to the speech on Tuesday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen -- who lost to Macron in the final round of last year's election -- said his strategy had failed to address the issues of immigration and Islamism.

"Barely a word on immigration, barely a word on Islamic fundamentalism. But we know perfectly well that these problems are partly the source of the difficulties in the suburbs," she said.

"Refusing to see the reality is to condemn oneself to failure," she added.

Stephane Gatignon, a former mayor of the Sevran suburban area north of Paris, said he was disappointed by the "small steps" announced by Macron during his speech.

Gatignon, an ecologist who went on hunger strike in 2012 to request more funding for deprived areas, said he found "there was not much in it. I expected a very political speech that would provide some reassurance."

Jean-Louis Marsac, the mayor of Villiers-le-Bel north of Paris, also said there was "not much" in the announcements, adding that greater funding was needed to demolish high-rise housing estates.

But former minister Jean-Louis Borloo, a respected figure in the French suburbs who recently prepared a major report for Macron on the issue, offered praise for the vision.

"After, what counts is the execution," he told AFP.

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