When the director of a job centre in Sevran, France, organized a visit to the Louvre for unemployed youngsters, she knew it would be a rare event.
Located north of Paris, Sevran is one of France's poorest places. The jobless rate is 18 per cent, and more than 40 per cent among the young. Even so, the director was taken aback by how exceptional the visit proved: Of the 40 locals who made the 35-kilometre trip, 15 had never left Sevran and 35 had never seen a museum.
Sevran is one of France's 717 "sensitive urban zones," most of them in the outlying areas called banlieues. In such places unemployment is more than twice the national rate. More than half the residents are of foreign origin, chiefly Algerian, Moroccan and sub-Saharan African. Three-quarters live in subsidized housing and 36 per cent are below the poverty line, three times the national average.
In 2005, after three weeks of rioting that ended in a government-imposed state of emergency, there was talk of a "Marshall plan" for the banlieues. More than $55 billion was set aside in a nine-year program. Apartment towers have been blown up in clouds of dust and replaced with lower-rise buildings lined with freshly planted saplings. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault recently visited Clichy-sous-Bois, the east-of-Paris banlieue where the riots began, to say, "We can no longer accept that areas feel abandoned."
He announced another 27-point plan, but no more cash.
For all the schemes and money, the banlieues are a world apart. From 2008 to 2011, the gap widened between unemployment rates in "sensitive urban zones" and in surrounding areas. Their schools have a high turnover of often-inexperienced teachers, gaining merit by doing time in the banlieues. Job centres are understaffed. The unemployed say their postal codes stigmatize them. Drug dealers compete with careers advisers to recruit teenagers.
"Here drug trafficking has always helped circulate money," says Mayor Stephane Gatignon of Sevran, a Green Party official. "It's how people scrape by, despite the crisis."
Last year, Gatignon took his troubles to parliament, literally: He pitched a tent outside the building to stage a hunger strike meant to extract more subsidies for Sevran and other places. He got an extra five million euros.
He is a keen promoter, against the odds, of his town's virtues. He argues that Sevran's youthful, multicultural vitality is its greatest asset, and hopes it can be channeled into entrepreneurship. Qataris are investing in businesses in the banlieues, he says, because the French will not. He does not place much hope in grand plans devised by bureaucrats on high.
The sense of isolation in a place such as Sevran is social as much as physical. Too many teenagers grow up with little connection to the world of work. Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who cut his teeth as mayor of the multicultural banlieue of Evry, talks of de-facto "apartheid" in France.
More than 70 different nationalities and many faiths crowd into Sevran. New migrants from Africa's poorest corners are joined by more recent arrivals from Italy and Spain. Even today in France, according to new research by Yann Algan and his colleagues at Sciences-Po university, somebody named Mohamed, Ali or Kamel is four times more likely to be unemployed than somebody named Philippe or Alain.
Sevran's disconnection is rich in paradox. The town has good railway links, yet Paris feels a world away. At the dimly lit Sevran-Beaudottes station, where the halal butcher and Rotisserie Couscous trade beneath advertising for Vita Malt African bottled drinks, fast trains tear through, carrying travellers from the airport direct to Paris.
"We have to wait for the slow trains that stop at the stations in-between," says a woman from Sevran who commutes to the airport for work each day. "There's too much theft here, and they want to keep the tourists away."