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French government tries to conquer suburbs ten years after riots

A file picture taken on November 2, 2005 shows a policeman in front of a burning car in the northern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, after police clashed with angry youths, on October 2, 2005
A file picture taken on November 2, 2005 shows a policeman in front of a burning car in the northern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, after police clashed with angry youths, on October 2, 2005 AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX

A fleet of government cars pulled up outside the run-down estates of Mureaux on the outskirts of Paris on Monday, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the worst rioting in the history of France's suburbs. The prime ministerial fleet, succeeds a visit last week by President François Hollande, and is part of a broader strategy to reduce segregation.

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Residents in Mureaux in one of France's infamous "banlieues" - west of Paris- were treated to a strapping display of solidarity on Monday by not one, but eighteen government ministers, who turned out in full force to prove that the state is by their side.

The timing of the visit is not innocent. On Tuesday October 27, the country will mark ten years since one of the worst riots, which saw police clash with angry youths after two boys were electrocuted in a high speed police chase. Dozens of people were arrested, and the images of cars burning and urban warfare were broadcast around the world.

If the flames of discontent have since died down, ten years on, the reasons which ignited them to begin with are still present.

Exclusion, poverty and crime continue to characterize these forgotten territories, often seen as "ghettos" that are all but cut off from the cities they surround.

Seven months ago, Prime minister Manuel Valls vowed to break this "social, economic and territorial apartheid." On Monday, he unveiled a string of measures to tackle youth unemployment, notably by launching a national racial testing campaign, to root out discrimination.

Valls also pledged to equip police officers with cameras to ensure that any illicit behaviour that is "contrary to deontological practice" is reported, he told journalists.

Last May, French courts acquitted two police officers accused of failing to assist the two youths that were electrocuted -prompting renewed anger and disillusionment among locals.

The government has been trying to claw back voters -most of whom voted for François Hollande in 2012 - who are now tempted to succumb to the populist appeal of Marine Le Pen's Front National. Hollande was in the Courneuve - north of Paris - last week, and this week it's Valls' turn.

On Sunday, Socialist MP Malekh Boutih reportedly said: "given the direction France is headed, there's no doubt that Marine Le Pen will win presidential elections in 2017."

But she could even triumph before then. Regional elections are just round the corner, and the Socialists are not polling well.

Given the stakes, and the emotion triggered by the ten year anniversary since the riots, Hollande and his majority may be visiting the "banlieue" more often. Valls indeed, heads back there on Tuesday.

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