For decades now, French politicians have been coming up with regeneration plans targeting the banlieues. The word translates as “suburbs”, but is shorthand for France’s edge-of-town deprived areas where many people live in social housing, and where the percentage of residents who are the children or grandchildren of immigrants is higher than elsewhere.
But the impact of such schemes has been limited, and unemployment stands at more than 40 per cent in some banlieues.
So, with little sign of economic growth for France, you might assume the prospect of a new investment fund for these areas, worth tens of millions of dollars, would be loudly hailed as a rare piece of good news. But you’d be wrong.
In November 2011, a group of French politicians from minority backgrounds visited Qatar. They came back with a pledge from the Gulf state to invest $65m in France’s most economically deprived suburbs. That project proved so controversial it was put on ice by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Now France’s Socialist government says it will work with Qatar to create a joint fund, designed to make it easier for people in the banlieues, and in poorer rural areas, to create businesses.
Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg has suggested France’s private sector will also be involved, without revealing the precise amounts and where the money will be going.
But Qatar’s ambassador to France, Mohamed Al Kuwari, suggests the fund will involve as much as $195m from Qatar and an equal amount from France.
Kamel Hamza, a councillor in the northern Paris suburb of La Courneuve, headed the group that visited Qatar.
“It’s a win-win situation,” he told me. “Because, if a local firm makes a profit and creates jobs, that means more money for the investment fund, and for Qatar. Everyone stands to benefit.”
Kamza says there’s huge interest from local entrepreneurs, many of whom find it virtually impossible to get bank loans to create start-ups.
La Courneuve’s communist mayor is not impressed. I caught up with him as he chatted with activists trying to stop the planned closure of a nearby car factory owned by PSA Peugeot-Citroën, which would put 3,000 people out of work.
Despite the economic climate, he says he’s uneasy about foreign money being used to help the banlieues, claiming it’s “irresponsible” of the government to rely on Qatari help in solving social problems.
And Marine Le Pen, head of France’s National Front party, goes much further, accusing Hollande of allowing Qatar to choose to invest in quartiers difficiles [“problem areas”] because many have large Muslim communities.
That’s nonsense, says the Qatari ambassador.
“This fund is directed at small- and medium-(sized) enterprises,” insists Al Kuwari. “If the government of France would like to help some areas here in France (in the suburbs) or the countryside, we are ready to discuss this issue.”
And for Hamza, going ahead with the investment fund could actually create social cohesion in places such as La Courneuve.
“My message to Marine Le Pen would be: stop watching us on television, and come to places like this, because there are great people here, they’re French citizens who want to work and to create their own businesses,” he says.
Follow Nadim Baba on Twitter: @NadimJBaba