Hollywood diplomacy in France shows up Sarkozy

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"Rocky, Rocky," yelled the crowd, as Sylvester Stallone mimed uppercuts on the red carpet. This was not Hollywood, however, but a Paris suburb more used to riot police than to movie stars.

The same day, another visit took place in the eastern city of Grenoble, where Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux inaugurated a special police unit to secure its run-down housing estates after recent gunfights and riots.

For some, the contrast reveals a failure in the government’s approach to minorities in the troubled outskirts of its cities, the "banlieue."

Stallone handed out autographs, while Hortefeux — the top general in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s newly-declared "war on crime" — delivered non-lethal riot guns and bullet-proof shields to local police.

"It’s empowering for people to see Hollywood stars visit these areas that are lashed by the politicians," said Rokhaya Diallo, 32, the leader of an anti-racism association, Les Indivisibles, after Stallone’s visit.

"I find it a shame that on the one hand there are people who want to bring a power hose to clean the banlieue, who say the people there are ‘scum’, and on the other there are people who bring Hollywood stars," Diallo told AFP, quoting incendiary statements Sarkozy made in 2005.

Stallone, the star of "Rocky" and "Rambo," appearing in Rosny-Sous-Bois on the outskirts Paris, was the third all-American action hero to venture into the banlieue this year.

John Travolta attended a Rosny premiere in February, and Samuel L. Jackson, his co-star in "Pulp Fiction," met youngsters in nearby Bondy in April.

Jackson’s visit, with an inspirational speech about his upbringing as a black American child in the days of racial segregation, stood out.

He was accompanied by the man who invited him: former Hollywood executive Charles Rivkin, who is now the United States’ ambassador to France.

Diallo said she has met Rivkin several times in neighborhoods such as La Courneuve — a trouble spot where Sarkozy, interior minister at the time, made headlines in 2005 by vowing to "clean it out with a power hose."

Jackson’s visit — unlike Stallone’s or Travolta’s — was an official part of a wide American political networking drive, encompassing art projects, debates and a long-running exchange program.

Diallo was among 30 local figures taken to tour the United States this year on a US-funded project for budding French leaders in their 30s, a program whose past participants include Sarkozy himself.

The US activities in France have intensified in recent years as part of efforts to reach out to Muslims since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and in particular since Rivkin’s appointment by Obama last year.

Tensions have long run high between French police and locals living in deprived districts where young people and immigrants struggle to find work, notably during an explosion of riots in late 2005.

On that sensitive issue, supporters of the US programs draw inspiration from America’s own racial history.

"The United States have substantial experience in all matters of social integration," said a spokeswoman for the French urban policy ministry.

US diplomats "have understood that in these neighborhoods we have talented young people —the young people who are making the France of tomorrow," said the spokeswoman, who asked not to be named.

With critics questioning national leaders’ own commitment to the banlieues, she insisted that the embassy’s project complemented similar efforts by the French government, including housing, jobs and art projects.

US officials are at pains meanwhile to avoid the sense that they are preaching to France.
"We seek to engage with as wide a spectrum of French society as possible," said Paul Patin, a spokesman for the Paris embassy.

"Other countries can learn from the American experience, just as we in the USA can learn things from the French."

Nordine Nabili, head of a journalism school in Bondy in regular contact with the US embassy, said US initiatives had ruffled the feathers of some French officials, though none have complained publicly.

"For once we’re going out of the set framework: the elite schools that reproduce French society," he said. "The French have the feeling the Americans are coming to play in their back yard. It’s a bit of a thorn in their side."

The ministry spokeswoman acknowledged that "at first there were questions about what the embassy’s aims were, what it wanted to do. But I think now it is considered something that works well."

Five years after the 2005 riots, the tension has not slackened in some areas. The unrest in Grenoble last month drove security still higher up the political agenda.

"We are suffering the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration which has led to a failure of integration," Sarkozy said last month.

He announced a "war on crime" and vowed to strip some foreign-born criminals of French nationality. Critics accused him of a heavy-handed vote-grabbing approach.

"All this talk of security in the banlieues handicaps the French economy," said Nabili. "There is fantastic energy in the banlieues which could help get French society out of a lot of its problems."

Nacim Ben Younes, a student from the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, said that even Jackson’s visit left him with an empty feeling.

"It is easy for us to identify with these personalities," he told AFP. "But neither Samuel Jackson nor Sylvester Stallone can provide the opportunities that young people in the banlieues are so cruelly lacking."

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