​‘Social and ethnic apartheid’ plagues France - Prime Minister

Prime Minister Manuel Valls. (Reuters/Charles Platiau)
The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, stressed the need to address the “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” as well as “tensions that have been going on for years,” in a strongly worded indictment of inequality in French society.

The devastating terrorist attacks carried out by French-born radical Islamists that claimed 17 lives earlier this month, have brought internal divisions within the country to the forefront of a national debate.

"These last few days have underscored a lot of evil that is gnawing at our country and challenges we must be equal to," Valls told reporters in an address on Tuesday.

Valls emphasized France must prioritize fighting racism and discrimination in order to effectively combat the spread of extremism.

"The fight against hatred, anti-Semitism in all its forms, racism — these fights are absolutely urgent," Valls said. The prime minister added that the young people who refused to participate in the nationwide minute of silence for victims of the attack "are symptoms of something that is not going well."

"We have to look at all the divisions, the tensions that have been going on for years... the neglect of the suburbs, the ghettos, the social misery," he added.

France is dotted with some 750 “sensitive urban zones” (ZUS), which are impoverished areas home to an ethnically diverse population of over five million. These neighbourhoods are characterized by a high percentage of public housing and high unemployment, which is often twice the national average.

In 2005, a string of riots erupted in many of these troubled suburbs, prompting the French government to declare a state of emergency.

Following the unrest, the government set aside some $55 billion for a nine-year renewal and reform program. However, the program has met with little success, and the ZUS continue to be hotbeds of criminal activity, which is frequently blamed on unemployment, low levels of education, and a hostile police force, as well as racial discrimination against the residents, many of whom are of North African descent.

Valls noted the need to fight against “the social misery” which “is compounded by the daily discriminations because someone does not have the right name, the right color of skin, or because she is a woman."

The gunmen responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre and supermarket killings from January 7-9 were of Algerian and African descent, heralding a cry from right-wing National Front to curb immigration.

In her recent opinion piece in The New York Times, the party’s leader Marine Le Pen criticized the government and the political establishment for “20 years of mistakes” on immigration and Europe. She added that immigration offered a fertile ground for the creation of radical Islam.

The French government has rejected such suggestions and is set to unveil proposals this week to tackle issues such as security, education and urban policy.

"Reforming means fighting relentlessly against the inequalities," the prime minister said. "We have to battle each day this terrible feeling that there are second class citizens or some people that are more import than others."