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Controversy over Qatar's plan to help deprived French suburbs

By Saskya Vandoorne, CNN
September 28, 2012 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
The deprived suburbs of Paris and France's other major cities have been the scene of riots in recent years.
The deprived suburbs of Paris and France's other major cities have been the scene of riots in recent years.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Qatar to invest millions of euros to help regenerate disadvantaged suburbs of Paris
  • Plan has been approved by France's President Francois Hollande
  • Scheme has come in for criticism from across the political spectrum

(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.

The plan, which has been met with widespread criticism from across the political spectrum, was first put forward in November last year under the tenure of former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Aneld, a group representing local elected officials who advocate for diversity in deprived areas met with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar last November, to secure an investment of 50 million euros.

The vice-president of Aneld, Leila Leghmara, told CNN she had regularly been approached by young people brimming with ambitious projects, but had no financial backing to see them through. The idea behind the fund is to inspire hope in the poor, troubled French suburbs with high immigrant populations.

But the plans were put on hold by Sarkozy, for fear of jeopardizing his chances of re-election -- his infamous suggestion to "clean the suburbs with a high pressure hose" when acting as minister of the interior in 2005 had not been forgotten.

The fund was given new life last week when members of Aneld met with the French industrial recovery minister, Arnaud Montebourg, who approved the plan and agreed to match Qatar's investment, bringing the fund's total to 100 million euros.

With Qatar already having made large investments in French utility companies such as Veolia and Suez environment, as well as media group Lagardere, and more recently the purchase of French football club Paris Saint-Germain, this latest announcement of French-Qatari cooperation was met with heavy criticism by both the French left and right.

Lionel Luca, the Member of Parliament for the center-right Union of Popular Movement (UMP), called for a parliamentary investigation into Qatar's "interest" in France in an open letter to the president of the National Assembly.

"It would not be troubling if Qatar were a secular democracy or even a non-proselytising religious state. However, this country practices fundamentalist Islam," Luca wrote.

Nicolas Demorand, editor-in-chef of France's left wing newspaper Liberation, questioned the motives behind the investment in an editorial.

"To see Qatar land in the French suburbs as a stand-in for a cash-strapped French Republic deserves to be looked at twice," Demorand mused.

Marine Le Pen, head of France's far right National Front party, whose presidential campaign played heavily on the fear of immigrants -- particularly those of Muslim origins, also weighed in with a communique titled "French Islamic Trojan Horse," in which she accused Qatar of investing in the "banlieues" because of the high number of Muslims present there.

"These investments are in no way for humanitarian reasons, they are political and religious. It is a major political mistake to accept this and it will come at the price of our independence not only in our country but also in the context of our international policy," she wrote.

CNN has sought comment from the Qatari government and from French government officials on the plan, but has not yet received a response.

Leghmara is concerned that the fund is proving divisive as the details of how the money will be spent are yet to be decided. She argues the investment will be a huge help to all those who are out of work. With the number of unemployed in France reaching three million in August -- the highest figure since 1999 -- she believes job creation would be welcomed.

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