CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France (Reuters) - Aroua Hamdane nervously eyed a group of teenagers ambling across the street from his home in one of Paris’ tinderbox high-rise suburbs and let out a sigh, shaking his head disapprovingly.
“Look at them. They do not work. They hang around like that all day. Always smoking grass and getting into trouble with the police,” said the 66-year-old retired salesman.
“You know, there was a time when Clichy-sous-Bois was a really classy place. Now you have to worry about them all the time,” he said, nodding in the direction of the teenagers.
When approached, the group of five youths in sagging pants and hooded sweat shirts sauntered off. One of them turned and said: “We do not like to talk, we only act when provoked.”
Hamdane immigrated to France from Tunisia 31 years ago. He moved to Clichy-sous-Bois with his wife and bought a flat in one of the tower blocks known as La Forestiere in 1989.
Now earmarked as one of the projects to be demolished in an overdue urban renewal drive, La Forestiere has become an overcrowded squalid den for the underworld.
But Hamdane says building new houses and a police station and having more cops patrolling the streets would not make the of problems of the gritty banlieus (suburbs) in the fringes of France’s cities go away overnight.
“The same people will move to the new houses. In 10 years’ time we will find ourselves in the same situation because a new house does not come with a job or other services that are critically needed here,” he said.
Situated about 15km (10 miles) northeast of central Paris, Clichy-sous-Bois is still not directly linked to the greater Paris transport network by tram, train or metro. Getting there involves over an hour on a connecting train and bus.
Dominated by high-rise cluster blocks built after World War Two to solve post-war housing shortages, Clichy-sous-Bois is mostly populated by arriving immigrants and second and third generation immigrants mostly from north Africa.
Unemployment is twice the national average at over 30 percent. Almost half the nearly 30,000 residents are under 25.
A “Marshall Plan” promised by President Nicholas Sarkozy in the wake of the autumn 2005 riots — to fix neighborhoods such as Clichy-sous-Bois, improve its inhabitants’ lives and create jobs after years of neglect — has been slow to materialize.
“Those were just words to please his electorate. It meant nothing to us and we never believed him anyway,” scoffed Dridi Ali, a 36-year-old laboratory technician.
“To be honest, very little if anything has change in Clichy and Montfermeil (a neighboring suburb) since the riots. People are even poorer because of the crisis and more immigrants are arriving. It is misery here,” said Ali, who lived in the same block as of one of the boys whose death sparked the 2005 riots.
Feeling neglected, marginalized and stigmatized, some have turned to what the government calls the parallel economy. Petty theft, drug trade and sometimes brazen robberies with automatic weapons make headlines.
This has lead to numerous, sometimes deadly brushes with the law and has become a challenge for Sarkozy who won election in 2007 promising to fight crime and wage war on urban violence.
A spate of crime and urban riots has prompted the president, whose support has ebbed due to the economic crisis and political funding scandals, to return to the law-and-order theme that drew support from the far-right to the working-class left.
But Ali said proposed measures such as stripping naturalized immigrants convicted of serious crimes of their French citizenship are just another way of discriminating against the children of immigrants.
“My generation of the 1980s, we have realized that we are in a sort of a permanent crisis. We see it as a kind of a war against us. We feel stigmatized,” he said.
“That is why we have had to adapt and do some of the things we do like sell drugs or get involve in parallel markets as they call it. All we ask is that they leave us alone,” he said.
“Don’t come here shooting our kids, our brothers. That is all we are asking. Otherwise, we don’t really care about the rest of the country,” Ali added.
Even though there have been some efforts in improving lives with urban renewal schemes, Claude Dilain, the socialist mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois. says French society is only interested in the high-rise suburbs episodically when violence erupts.
“Let’s not fool ourselves, it’s because there is a fear of riots,” said Dilain who is also president of the Association of Cities and Suburbs, a cross-party grouping of elected officials mostly from problem neighborhoods.
“What makes us angry is that fundamentally nothing has changed since the 2005 riots. They need to treat the root causes and not just the consequences,” he told Reuters in an interview after another riot hit the city of Grenoble in July.
France had parked its problems on the fringes of cities and left them to fester without dispersing migrants into the wider population or providing adequate social services.
“We need public services to return to the neighborhoods... We need a job center. We need a family benefits office,” Dilain said.
“We are in a situation of extreme tension, because apart from rare urban renewal projects, there is no hope. There is a rise in more serious forms of delinquency. The rabble, the little thugs, are now getting into armed robbery,” he added.
Additional reporting and editing by Paul Taylor