Thirty years ago Fontenay-sous-Bois was a village. It is now a part grim, part leafy, tower-block-strewn suburb east of Paris, half-way between Notre Dame and Disneyland.
Amar, my companion, driving a large, battered car, swerved as if to to run the kids down and only just missed them. The youths looked startled, then aggressive, but, seeing Amar at the wheel, broke into grins. Amar is a youth worker and manager of several local youth soccer teams. The young men queued up calmly and patiently to shake his hand through the driver's window and then, one by one, leant across to the passenger seat to shake hands with me, a stranger. "Bonjour monsieur," each said politely.
These kids, Amar explained, are the hard core of the local voyous (thugs) in Fontenay-sous-Bois. They have a cache of arms hidden somewhere in the tall flats - Uzis, revolvers, chain-saws - almost enough fire-power to invade Luxembourg. Each Saturday they go to a mall in a nearby town and, swarming through the shops, steal what they can - clothes, cameras, records - to keep or sell. On Saturday nights, they have pitched fist-fights with gangs from neighbouring cites (housing estates) and other suburbs and, sometimes, with the police.
These are the same kids - or at least the same kind of kids - who caused mayhem on the Champs Elysees at the start of the World Cup last year and who turned a peaceful demonstration by French sixth-formers into a riot last October. They are the same kids who have - rightly or wrongly - been dominating the political agenda in France for the last three weeks.
We met some of them later, hanging around the lift shaft of a block of flats. Once again, there were ritual handshakes all round. The kids were an extraordinary racial mixture - North African, white, black, Turkish, Yugoslav - but formally polite and relatively articulate; in other words extremely French. It is impossible to imagine equivalent British or American teenagers shaking hands with strangers.
Mimoun, 17, stocky and bespectacled, built like the pit-bull puppy he had on a piece of string, talked calmly, almost proudly about their life. "Here, there is nothing. The schools are shit. Even if we study, there are no jobs for us. So we steal. Why not? How else are we going to get the cash to buy things, to live?"
I asked about the racial mixture in the group. Are there racial tensions in the banlieues? "Yes. We are racist. We hate the kids from the other suburbs. Here, between the kids who live here, there is no problem of race. Beurs (youths of Arab origin), whites, blacks; we get on fine. This is our cite. We hang out together. We fight together. We are bored together."
"Him," he pointed to one of his friends, "He is Russian." No, the kid objected, Yugoslav. Mimoun shrugged. And what race are the kids they hate from the other banlieues? He grinned. "The same as us. All kinds. White, brown, black..."
For the last three weeks, France has been going through one of its periodic bouts of hysterical hand-wringing and breast-beating about the violent youth of its inner suburbs - broadly the equivalent socially and demographically of inner cities of Britain and the US (except in one crucial respect: the rainbow racial mixture). The pink-red-green coalition government of Lionel Jospin has been sharply divided between those, like the interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who wanted more repression, more police and tougher sentences and those who wanted more hope, better schools and more teachers. Jospin decided, in classical Jospin fashion, to try to do both.
Both policies are probably justified. There is much that is wrong, and scary, about the French banlieues. And yet, and yet... The depth of French anguish on the subject is mystifying. The problems are no worse than those of other countries; in some respects they are less threatening. French press commentary and reporting is deeply misleading. In the right-wing press, especially in the comment and letters page of Le Figaro, there is a running theme: France faces a kind of intifada: a racial and religious revolt by the dark-skinned hordes beyond the Boulevard Peripherique. Even the Interior Minister, Mr Chevenement, who should know better, spoke of a "hate culture".
A letter to Le Figaro last week summed up this atmosphere of paranoia. Dr Pierre Quintin, of Cannes, wrote: "The French, in their cities, are now being slowly surrounded by a circle of fire and a wall, cemented with ethnic, social and - worst of all - religious hatred."
By my observation, this is an utterly false picture of the banlieues. Over the last six weeks, I have been making regular trips, 20 minutes from Paris by train, to talk to young people in Fontenay-sous-Bois, a typical town in the inner ring of suburbs. In that time I've met scores of teenagers, sometimes with Amar as a guide, sometimes without. Some, like Mimoun's gang, are irretrievably antisocial, or rather asocial. One 15-year-old child - and he was a child - proudly described how he had attacked an intruder from another banlieue with a chain-saw. But these kids - a violent minority, not the majority - are unaware and uncaring about anything beyond the boundaries of their limited lives. None had any sense of being involved in a religious or social or racial war. The horizon of their knowledge and ambition was the booty in the mall in the next town.
I also met many kids from the same age-groups, tower blocks, ethnic backgrounds, schools and football teams who wanted to make something of their lives, who were not intimidated by the high local rates of youth unemployment, who had no sense of anger or hatred towards mainstream France (apart from the universally detested police). Christophe Son, 22, the son of Senegalese parents, plays in a three-man, rap group - two blacks and one white. "If you live in a place like this you have a choice," he said. "You give up and decide you have no future and you hang out with the kids by the lift shaft. Or you fight to get out, to make something of yourself. Sport and music are the two routes most people choose. That is the side of the banlieue you never see on TV or in the newspapers. Culturally, this place is alive, more alive than Paris."
There was a 2.7 per cent increase in juvenile crime in France last year - which in fact represents a slowing of the problem, though a problem there certainly is. The rate of juvenile crime has increased by 80 per cent in 10 years, partly because the number of juveniles has steeply increased. The absolute figures are broadly in line with those in other European countries, somewhat lower than those in Britain, far behind the US. Compared to America and Britain, serious violent crime by teenagers - murders, shootings, serious woundings - is relatively uncommon. Mimoun and his friends have guns, but do not carry them permanently, as American inner- city teenagers do.
The reason why the French problem is a suburban problem rather than an inner-city one is worth recalling (something Le Figaro never does). In the Seventies and Eighties, Paris, under the mayorship of Jacques Chirac, copied by other cities, pursued a deliberate policy of driving poorer whites and immigrants into tower blocks in the suburbs. There they joined another army of people, rehoused from the shanty towns that surrounded Paris in the Fifties and Sixties. Hence the extraordinarily rapid urbanisation of places like Fontenay-sous-Bois, where half the tower blocks belong not to the local council but to the city of Paris. Hence also the lack of ethnic divisions on the British and US model: racial ghettoes have not had time to arise.
My guide, Amar Oussaid, 32, himself an offender in his youth, does not minimise the problem of violence in the banlieue: the kids abandoned to their fate by dysfunctional families, the sense of impunity, the rejection - by some -of all authority and ambition. He worries especially about the incivility, as he calls it, of a foul-mouthed 10-13-year-old generation who seem to be out of everyone's control.
"But my problem is with the way the banlieues are relentlessly presented in the French media. There is rarely a mention of the other side of the story, the tens of thousands of kids who have taken up formal sport, mostly soccer and boxing, since they saw one of their own, Zinedine Zidane, win the World Cup for France. Or the kids who come to my youth club who want to be lawyers, architects, engineers, rap stars. Worst of all, there is this obsession with the banlieue as a boiling pot of racial hatred. There are some places, more racially segregated than this, where race may be a problem. But for the most part it is not, except, it seems, for the police. France should be grateful that is so. Otherwise, you'd have a situation that would be truly explosive."