WOIPPY, France (Reuters) – After a bout of street unrest just over a decade ago, the Woippy suburb of the northeastern city of Metz secured state funding to improve housing, refurbish streets and even create a riverside beach and educational farm complete with beehives and a llama.
But such spending, part of France’s longstanding policy of urban renewal projects, did not discourage youths from looting its shops and setting fire to a local school in riots last week after the police shooting of a teenager of North African descent at a traffic stop in a Paris suburb.
“To see a fire in this institution created to support, to help people – that hurts,” Mayor Cedric Gouth told Reuters as he stood in a burnt-out classroom of the “School of the Second Chance” set up to give support to struggling students.
The latest riots have spurred soul-searching across France about whether its strategy for combating social grievances and unrest in its often racially mixed and economically disadvantaged suburbs through spending on local infrastructure, education and other projects is working.
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After a hastily called meeting with Gouth and other mayors whose towns suffered major damage, President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged this week that a single, top-down approach set by Paris was not the only answer to complex local grievances.
In many parts of France over the past week, rioters with an average age of 17 targeted public facilities put in place specifically to improve the lives of locals, ranging from schools to swimming pools, public transport and nurseries.
Woippy’s School of the Second Chance – which offered French, math and career-coaching to school-leavers with no qualifications – had already suffered vandalism in 2010 after a teenager died in a scooter accident following pursuit by police.
“My initial reaction was: ‘No, no, no, no!’ and: ‘Why?’” head teacher Farid Hamoudea said of the latest damage. Two students told Reuters they feared the damage caused could damage the school’s image with prospective employers.
Nestled in the heart of Europe less than a one-hour drive from Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, Woippy grew from a village to a typical French suburb from the 1960s onwards with the construction of apartment blocks housing a population, many with roots in former French colonies, that now totals over 14,000.
Part of a former mining region which has since suffered from rapid de-industrialisation, Woippy’s main district has seen close to half of its residents fall below the poverty line.
Earmarked as one of some 1,500 deprived “priority districts” eligible for extra support, the suburb has won over 100 million euros of public funding over the past decade, Gouth said.
Projects so far range from upgrades of its ageing housing stock to the creation of green spaces and a “Nature Discovery Centre” with greenhouses, goats, a donkey and a llama, intended to teach children about ecology and farming.
France has pledged to invest 12 billion euros in such urban renewal projects between 2014 and 2030 while many priority areas also benefit from other forms of government aid and subsidies.
Researchers point out that total state support to poor areas nonetheless amounts to less than 1% of annual national output. Locals in any case complain that it fails to address what they see as underlying issues of exclusion and discrimination.
“Some new paint is of course always nice. But our problems here run much, much deeper,” said Mouhad Moradab, 42, a social worker and local celebrity as the unpaid volunteer chairman of Woippy’s run-down soccer club.
“We don’t have the same opportunities. That’s what we are feeling,” said Moradab, whose Moroccan immigrant father worked on the French railways but was given a lower employee status than his French-born peers at the time.
“Who was it who turned places like Woippy into ghettos?”
He said the issue of racial discrimination remained taboo in a country which collects little data on ethnicity because it regards equal opportunities as a key principle of a colour-blind republic – an aspiration many in Woippy see as far from their sense of living in a ghetto with limited opportunities.
“Everything is easier when you are white,” said Chad Jallouz, a self-employed 21-year-old of Algerian and Tunisian descent who lives a few blocks from the vandalised school.
Macron said this week that France would push ahead with urban renewal plans and look at ways to get faster results. “Our worst enemy is half-hearted ambition,” he said.
Moradab, Jallouz and other locals interviewed by Reuters all said they oppose violence. Some of them even organised citizen clean-up actions after the riots. At the same time, they said they understood the street anger as they also faced difficulties with police and missing job opportunities.
“We do have many people with diplomas here who have made it. They go and work in Luxembourg because they are being accepted there,” said Moradab.
Thomas Kirszbaum, a sociologist at Lille University who specialises in urban policy and integration, acknowledged that urban renewal efforts often lead to local improvements but did little to address a wider sense of discrimination.
“More important for the inhabitants of those neighbourhoods is their relationship with the rest of the French society and the state when they leave their apartment blocks,” he said.
After what is the worst bout of street unrest since the “yellow vest” (“gilet jaunes”) protests over fuel taxes five years ago, Macron’s government has promised to listen more to feedback from those on the ground to update their policies.
But so far, the idea that part of the problem is outright racism has featured little in government messaging – despite even a Labour Ministry survey last year showing people with a North African name had a 50% lower chance of being hired than a person with a European name and comparable skills.
Instead, government officials argue that successive urban renewal plans have produced educational and other gains which allay a wider sense of social exclusion. They point out that beneficaries often find a job and move out of the deprived areas – and thus no longer show up in the statistics.
Sitting in the courtyard of the vandalised school, Jallouz remained unconvinced. “Revolt to some feels like their only weapon at hand when they are second-class citizens.”
(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Juliette Jabkhiro and Elizabeth Pineau, Writing by Tassilo Hummel; editing by Mark John and Mark Heinrich)
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