Thursday, September 23, 2010

US Embassy Engages French Banlieues

Check out this NY Times article on engagement in banlieues by the U.S. embassy in France. (Many thanks to Art Goldhammer's French Politics blog for the link.)

For those who may not be aware, "banlieue" is a politically charged term for the poverty- and crime-ridden, largely immigrant neighborhoods that surround many French cities. French president Nicolas Sarkozy made disparaging remarks against the banlieues during his 2007 presidential race, and the areas characterize what many call a long-running failure to integrate France's minorities.

Through its engagement, the U.S. embassy seeks to address a sense of abandonment felt by scores of banlieue-raised French youth. The article opens with this:

"BONDY, France -- The residents of this poor, multiracial Paris suburb say they have been abandoned. For 30 years, they say, the French authorities have written off Bondy and neighborhoods like it, treating their inhabitants as terminal delinquents and ignoring their potential.
This, residents note, is not the approach taken by the United States Department of State.

“We’re waiting for the president of the Republic, for his ministers,” said Gilbert Roger, the mayor of Bondy. “And we see the ambassador of the United States.”

Goldhammer's review of the article raises a good point about the how such bold diplomatic strides would be received in the United States:

"The following sentence [from the article] in particular raises a host of questions:

Since Mr. Obama’s election, the Americans have helped organize seminars for minority politicians, coaching them in electoral strategy, fund-raising and communications. 

One can only imagine what the reaction of, say, [House Republican leader] John Boehner would be to the news that the French embassy was coaching, say, Haitian-American politicians on how to knock off their no-doubt Republican opponents."

Ah, diplomacy in action. Central to the U.S. embassy's work is the question of currying favor, with whom, and at what cost-benefit balance: Is the embassy's best move to generate hearts-and-minds change within a largely underprivileged (and, importantly, preponderantly Muslim) popular base, or rather to avoid peeving the French political establishment?

Comments welcome.

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