It’s an intricate tale of Qatari riches, disadvantaged French communities, politics and public image. The French government announced earlier this week that it would contribute to a fund to economically reinvigorate the country’s disadvantaged suburbs, or “banlieues” as they’re known in France. While on the surface the decision may seem unremarkable, the fund, which was initially to be financed entirely by Qatar, has been dogged by controversy.
The story began in November 2011, when ANELD – a French minority advocacy group comprised of elected officials from the country’s suburbs – approached Qatar’s ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, with the idea to create a fund for business projects and proposals submitted by banlieue residents.
According to Leila Leghmara, vice-president and treasurer of ANELD, the small but oil-rich Gulf state had
long expressed an interest in France’s disadvantaged areas, where youth unemployment can reach beyond 40 percent.
Qatar, which already has a number of investments in France and owns the world-famous Paris Saint Germain football club, offered 50 million euros for the project. When the news that the Gulf state was coughing up cash for France’s suburbs broke, it sparked a brouhaha among left and right-wing groups.
After protracted wrangling, during which the very purpose of the fund was threatened, President Françoise Hollande’s government decided to tackle this political hot potato once and for all.
Hollande’s minister of industry and growth, Arnaud Montebourg met ANELD’s members and stated that the government would also invest in the project, making it a joint French-Qatari fund.
While Montebourg has yet to give a clear indication of how much money the government plans to put up, Leghmara said the minister told ANELD that the project would total at least 100 million euros, roughly half of which would come from French funding.
‘Trojan Horse of Islamism’
At the heart of the controversy surrounding the fund lies widespread French suspicions over Qatar’s soft-power intentions in France’s disadvantaged banlieues, home to a significant number of France’s estimated 4-6 million Muslims.
“There’s something going on. Nothing is free, that’s for certain,” French Middle East expert Karim Sader told FRANCE 24. “We’re tempted to link the funding for the suburbs to Qatar’s Islamist leanings, given the country’s role in financing the Arab Spring revolutions and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Over the past few months, Qatar’s role in the Arab Spring has raised eyebrows in Arab and Western diplomatic circles. Critics note that the Gulf emirate has been pushing the envelope. Qatar’s support for Islamist groups – including the Muslim Brotherhood and Libyan Islamist factions – have rung alarm bells across the international community. Pointing to these Islamist ties, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front party, immediately attacked the project on Monday, calling it a “major political mistake”.
“Arnaud Montebourg has shown that our country is indeed up for sale to oil monarchies who support radical Islam and jihadism across the world,” Le Pen wrote in a statement titled, “The Trojan Horse of Islamism”.
Members of the country’s political left also expressed discomfort with Qatar’s role in the project. Nicolas Demorand, director of the left-leaning French daily Libération, questioned the country’s motives for investing so much money into the suburbs in an editorial article published on Monday.
“Even if Qatari diplomacy works the circuits that define the modern world – those of finance, mass media, sport and entertainment, as well as the arts and academia – it is in no way a philanthropic enterprise (..) Therefore to see Qatar land in the French suburbs as a stand-in for a cash-strapped French Republic merits serious examination,” Demorand wrote.
Others, however, have viewed Qatar’s involvement more as an embarrassment for the French government.
“What’s interesting is that here is a state that is financing a project that is supposed to be [France’s] prerogative,” Sader told FRANCE24. “Our old countries are in crisis, and are no longer able to sustain a welfare state.”
An imperfect compromise
ANELD’s Leghmara agreed that Qatar’s involvement seemed to highlight France’s own failings, though also emphasising the benefits that Qatari funds would bring to communities starved of investment.
“We received hundreds of project propositions after we announced the creation of the Qatari fund. We can see that there is a real desire – one that the government couldn’t answer. It’s a kind of failure of the Republic. Both left- and right-wing parties have failed in the suburbs,” Leghmara added.
Faced with a sluggish economy and mounting youth unemployment, the French government’s decision could be viewed as a compromise designed to appease its left-wing and right-wing critics who warned that the Qatari-financed project would grant the wealthy Gulf emirate inordinate influence in France.
According to Leghmara, it’s also a calculated attempt at controlling not only the fund’s image, but also, in part, its execution.
“If the project were exclusively funded by the Qataris, it would be easier for people to say it is an attempt to introduce fundamentalism to these communities. Montebourg knew that, and thought it would be easier for people to accept a French-Qatari fund. The French government’s involvement also means that they have more control over the project and how the money is used,” Leghmara said.
This article was previously published on www.france24.com/en