- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

LA COURNEUVE, France — There are colorful parasols and lounge chairs and the gleeful sounds of children splashing in clear blue water or playing volleyball on the fine white sand.

What’s unusual about this summer snapshot are the gritty high-rises in the background and the occasional robed Muslim man or veiled woman trudging across the sand.

These housing projects that were a flashpoint for riots that engulfed poor French neighborhoods last fall have created their own beach, hundreds of miles from the coast and a world away from the vacation spots of France.

Courneuve Plage (Beach), was created to entertain youngsters from families too poor to take part in France’s traditional summer ritual — the trek to the seaside, mountains or inland waterways.

Modeled after Paris Plage — the artificial seaside stretching along the Seine River that has cooled Parisians each summer since 2001 — the Courneuve sand covers a field nestled amid high-rises.

It’s a sandy playground complete with three pools, trampolines and other activities. A food stand features spicy merguez sausages, the North African equivalent of a hot dog.

“This is a real working-class town, with people who can’t go on vacation. So we bring the vacation to them,” said Thierry Touzet, the town hall official in charge of the project.

But there is a difference here from Paris Plage: 50 monitors survey activities and 20 mediators are on the lookout against trouble. On some days, police from RAID, an elite crisis intervention squad, man a rock-climbing tower they contributed.

There is also a dark note: The artificial beach isn’t much of a draw for the idle young men whose anger exploded into rioting last year.

“There’s just little kids there, stealing purses,” said Cem Hanoglu, 16, walking alone in the shadow of high-rises. “If I wanted to steal something, I’d go there.”

“It’s great. There are lots of things to do,” said Alexander Dufour, 13, who was bused to La Courneuve with his summer school group from nearby Garges-Les-Gonesses. “And the security people are really neat.”

Courneuve Plage, in its second year and, with free entry, draws about 1,800 people a day and up to 2,500 on weekends, said Mr. Touzet.

The 6,500-square-foot “beach” is just a stroll from the neighborhood where a year ago an 11-year-old boy was killed by two stray bullets, prompting Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to threaten to “clean up … with a power hose.”

That remark, and his later reference to troublemakers in the projects as “scum,” still sting. The comments were viewed as fueling the anger of youths in the projects, many jobless and coping with bias against their non-European looks or accents or undesirable addresses.

Not going on vacation is for many of these youths one more form of discrimination, said sociologist Marc Hatzfeld, who specializes in France’s housing-project neighborhoods.

“They would like to be like middle-class youths, near the beach with pretty girls, music,” he said. “But they aren’t like others. Their destiny is not that of other French, not all of them.”

Many youths return in the summer to their family’s home country, often Algeria or Morocco. Many others are stuck in the projects.

In Villers-Sur-Mer, in the Calvados region of Normandy, the police run soccer matches three afternoons a week between youths from a nearby campground and teenagers brought in from outlying Paris projects. Roger Gely, a police lieutenant who helped organize the soccer games, said delinquency has declined 70 percent over the eight summer seasons of games.

“These cops are cool,” said Maurad, a 15-year-old from the Seine-Saint-Denis region of Paris who participated in the soccer matches. “At home, they’re always asking for our papers,” he said. He declined to give his family name because he distrusts authorities and reporters — like many youngsters from the projects.

Mr. Hatzfeld, the sociologist who specializes in housing-project neighborhoods, said the beach initiative at La Courneuve is great for young children but would not attract teenagers, particularly those on the margins of society.

“The fundamental problem is that these activities will never replace the symbolic character of going on vacation like the middle class,” he said.

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