Minister's claim of '100 Molenbeeks' in France sparks debate
France's communities minister has triggered a debate over his claims that there are 100 neighbourhoods in the country comparable to Molenbeek, the Brussels district that spawned many of the jihadists behind recent attacks in Europe.
The minister, Patrick Kanner, had made the comment on Sunday, saying "there are today, we know, around 100 neighbourhoods in France that show similar potential to what happened in Molenbeek."
He claimed the high number of radicalised youths in Molenbeek was linked to "an enormous concentration of poverty and unemployment... a mafia system with an underground economy... where public services have disappeared".
It recalled comments by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls a year ago when he spoke of "territorial, social and ethnic apartheid" in many suburbs in the aftermath of the January 2015 attacks in Paris.
The right-wing opposition has welcomed such views from the Socialist-led government. while others dispute the link between poverty and radicalisation.
"For once we have a minister, Mr. Kanner, who has lifted the veil of blindness that covers the eyes and mouth, that is speaking a truth clearly..." said Florian Philippot, one of the main leaders of the far-right National Front party.
But experts say such views only serve to stigmatise working-class areas.
"Kanner has done what his ministry is supposed to fight against: the construct... of poor neighbourhoods as a threat," said Renaud Epstein, an expert on urban communities at Nantes University in western France.
Many French jihadists came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds before heading off to Syria, and experts have long rejected any direct link between poverty and extremism.
- 'Plenty of little Molenbeeks' -
Nonetheless, Valls partly backed Kanner's statement, saying there was a process of "enclosure, sectarianism and radicalisation" happening in some of France's poorer, primarily immigrant neighbourhoods.
A police source told AFP there were "plenty of little Molenbeeks" in France.
"It's not exclusively suburbs but areas where we see the significant influence of Salafists and hubs of radicalisation. It tends to be beyond the control of security forces," the source said.
The French government has designated 80 "priority security zones" (ZSP) with a further 1,300 areas of concern around the country -- mostly run-down and crime-ridden neighbourhoods on the outskirts of cities such as Paris and Marseille.
Kanner released a list of 12 "top-priority" neighbourhoods on Friday.
Molenbeek -- with unemployment averaging 42 percent among people under 25, and annual per capita income of 9,800 euros ($11,000) -- has similar characteristics to these areas.
But experts warn against reducing the problem to statistics.
"If we compare social characteristics, we will find French neighbourhoods that look like Molenbeek, from the point of view of poverty and unemployment, but that doesn't mean there's an automatic and simple link between poverty and groups engaged in jihadist ideology," said Antoine Jardin of the Centre for European Studies at Sciences Po university in Paris.
© 2016 AFP