France tackles inequalities and extremism after attacks

By Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet ,AP

MONTFERMEIL, France — As France’s prime minister kicks off a new plan to fix troubled schools and restive suburbs, the people he’s trying to help are more skeptical than hopeful. They’ve heard these promises before.

This time, the stakes are arguably higher. The impetus for the new government proposals announced Thursday came after French-born Islamic radicals shocked the nation in three days of terrorist attacks.

The government plan focuses on healing social and religious fractures by starting with schools, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the ��essential link�� in transmitting French values of secularism and freedoms that are often absent in notorious suburbs, or ��banlieues.�� Tinderboxes of discontent, the banlieues house France’s poorest, especially minorities with immigrant roots, including many Muslims from former French colonies.

Concern about schools jumped to the forefront of national debate after some children refused to observe a minute of silence for victims of the Jan. 7-9 attacks on a kosher market and satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Twenty people were killed in the attacks, including the three gunmen, who had lived in impoverished neighborhoods in Paris and its suburbs.

Valls shocked many this week by referring to a ��territorial, social, ethnic apartheid�� that especially affects the suburbs, and convened a special government meeting Thursday to tackle this societal divide.

In suburbs northeast of Paris on Thursday, residents denounced the terrorist attacks, but many could understand why some children didn’t observe the moment of silence.

��People were killed in the housing projects by police, and there was no minute of silence�� for them, said Aly Sacko, a 28-year-old working with the city hall in Clichy-sous-Bois. Two teenagers with immigrant backgrounds were killed in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005 while fleeing police, sparking weeks of riots in suburbs across the country. Similar incidents have prompted smaller riots in other cities in the decade since.

Sacko, a French-born Muslim of Malian origin, said the prime minister’s plans to fix poverty and social tensions are a ��dream.�� ��Nothing will change, I promise you,�� he said.

The plans announced Thursday include special training and testing for school teachers about French and European citizenship, secularism and how to teach it.

Specific funds to help the poorest families with some schooling costs will increase by 20 percent, to 45 million euros (US$52 million), Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.

Another idea is to teach children how to distinguish between extremist propaganda and verified information in the media. Every secondary school will be requested to develop its own radio, newspaper, or blog.

The ideas remain vague, and relatively modest. And they are not France’s first effort to tackle troubles in the suburbs.