When the blighted housing schemes ringing major French cities exploded in nationwide riots, France pledged quick action to fix them. Seven years on, the suburban projects remain islands of despair, lofty promises of rebirth largely forgotten. So a new plan to spend millions to help residents turn their districts around seemed cause for celebration.
Instead, it has met a wall of resistance and outright hostility. The reason – the benefactor was the wealthy Arab emirate of Qatar.
The tiny oil-rich state has exerted an outsized influence as a global bankroller in recent years. As Europe is engulfed in crisis, Qatar has been on a global spending spree, buying stakes in luxury brands, acquiring football club Paris St Germain and financing London’s “Shard” – the EU’s tallest building. Now, to the consternation of the French, the emirate wants to make a major humanitarian investment in the West.
It all started a year ago when ten enterprising local officials from the heavily immigrant and Muslim suburbs bypassed France’s sleek diplomatic machine and knocked on the door of Qatar’s emir with a request for help to fund the dreams of budding entrepreneurs without means. Their wish was fulfilled beyond their expectations: The emir pledged a €50 million (£40m) investment fund.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the Qatari investment an “Islamist Trojan horse” while independent politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who champions national sovereignty, said France would be “prostituting itself” by accepting the money.
The saga came to a head at the end of last month when the French government effectively hijacked the initiative, pledging matching funds but spreading them over all of France’s disadvantaged regions – and eliminating the focus on the disadvantaged suburbs. Far worse for the project’s originators, the government put the funds under the control of a state bank, so kicking the founders out of the driver’s seat.
Now, a year after their visit to the palaces of Doha, the ten who bucked a system that has failed the suburbs worry the money may never reach those they hope to help – ordinary people from their neighbourhood with big ideas bereft of any hope of backing.
The project’s original champions dismiss fears of sinister forces at play in Qatar’s offer.
“Qatar isn’t going to buy France,” said Leila Leghmara, one of the officials who made the trip to Qatar. “This delirious thinking has to stop.” Defenders of the plan note that nobody saw anything pernicious when Qatar raised its stake last year in France’s media and defence group Lagardere to 10 per cent, making it the largest single shareholder.
Investing in the poor districts of French cities does represent a rare example of Qatar using its money to directly influence lives, as it is doing elsewhere.
The no-strings-attached humanitarian investment in the West by an emerging economy is rare, perhaps unique.
However, Qatar insists that its fund for France is not charity.
“Qatar does business, not philanthropy,” ambassador Mohamed Al-Kuwari told Metro, the free daily, in his country’s only reaction to the noisy controversy.