The French government has just announced that it will allow the government of Qatar to invest 50 million euros in Paris’s banlieues. The Qatari money donated to improve these deprived suburbs on the outskirts of French cities will be matched by the French government, creating a pooled investment with a minimum value of 100 million euros. Home to large minority populations that are socially, economically, and politically disenfranchised, with unemployment rates in some places over 40 percent, these areas have been the location of social unrest and political strife over the past years, including riots across France in 2005. In French, though the word banlieue means suburb, it has come to signify these particular and troubled semi-urban areas. Their morphology is typical of post-war modernist schemes, with residential towers set in wide-open spaces that often serve as sites of conflict between frustrated residents and the police.
Questions about the motivation behind Qatar’s interest in the banlieues in the light of the substantial investment – and embarrassment at the involvement of a foreign government in what is seen as an internal affair – has led to unease across the political spectrum in France. Is this an exercise in soft power? A socially-motivated good deed? We’ve collected some of the initial reactions here:
From Harvey Morris, The New York Times: »The outcry from the anti-immigrant far right was predictably loud. Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front, in a communique headlined ‘Islamic Trojan horse,’ said Qatar’s decision was clearly linked to the fact that the majority of the population of the banlieues was Muslim[...] There was also unease on the left, however. Nicolas Demorand, editor-in-chief of the left-leaning Libération, suggested the Qatari investment was the latest exercise in ‘soft power’ by an emirate that was far from philanthropic.«
From Saskya Vandoorne, CNN: »France has been accused of passing the problems of its long-neglected suburbs off to others, after the country's Socialist president Francois Hollande agreed to a deal in which Qatar will invest millions of euros to help regenerate the disadvantaged ‘banlieues’ of Paris.«
From Rachel Holman, France24: »Faced with a sluggish economy and mounting youth unemployment, the French government’s decision could be viewed as a compromise designed to appease its left-wing and right-wing critics who warned that the Qatari-financed project would grant the wealthy Gulf emirate inordinate influence in France.«