Paris President Jacques Chirac met Friday with a group of successful young entrepreneurs from the low-income neighborhoods where rioting broke out, targeting the roots of France's worst civic unrest in decades.
Many youths have complained that the three weeks of rioting stigmatized their neighborhoods as dangerous and squalid. Chirac was careful to paint a more positive picture as he met at the Elysee Palace with the winners of a contest for young entrepreneurs who started businesses in the suburbs.
"In a lot of housing projects, there is a wonderful dynamic of solidarity, creation, dynamism, generosity and energy, of which we can be proud," said Chirac. "People can succeed there, if they want to."
Young people from low-income neighborhoods "deserve to be helped, recognized and encouraged," he said after the meeting.
The unrest broke out Oct. 27 in a housing project outside Paris after two teenagers were accidentally electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation. It quickly spread through poor minority communities across France, fed by anger over often shoddy housing, lack of employment and poor education.
Many of the rioters were the French-born children of North and West African immigrant families.
The violence sparked intense debate over France's failure to integrate minorities and forced the government to confront problems of racism and poverty that are deeply entrenched but usually ignored.
As the unrest has waned, Chirac turned his attention away from security to targeting the roots of the problems faced by people in tough suburbs, including high unemployment and racial discrimination.
Louisa Benzaid, a 33-year-old who opened a tearoom, told Chirac that an employer once asked her to introduce herself on the phone "as Claude Durand, not as Louisa Benzaid."
She said she recounted the conversation to Chirac and he was stunned. "He was aware of discrimination during hiring, he didn't expect that this kind of problem existed for people once they are inside a company," Benzaid said.
The conservative government has announced speeded-up spending to improve housing, education and employment. Chirac met this week with his key Cabinet ministers to lay the groundwork for a new program he announced Monday that would involve job and civic training for 50,000 underprivileged youths by 2007.
Medef, France's main employers' organization, urged companies to make sure minorities do not face discrimination.
Medef has a responsibility to "give them a hand," Medef President Laurence Parisot told France-2 television. While unemployment in France is just under 10 percent, it climbs as high as 40 percent for youths in housing projects.
At its worst, the rioting spread to nearly 300 towns and cities and involved violent exchanges of stones and tear gas between youths and police. Rioters fired live bullets and birdshot at officers and, at the peak, incinerated 1,408 vehicles in a single night.