A day at the beach - without leaving Paris's violent estates

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The Independent Online

Some of the most tense and dangerous inner suburban districts in the Paris area are inviting their citizens to go to the beach this summer, without leaving home.

The idea of the "urban beach" - a simulation of the pleasures of the seaside - has spread the length and breadth of France in the past four years. This summer, the concept has been adopted by several of the most violent cités (public housing estates) in the Paris area. Even La Courneuve, just north of Paris, a byword for gang battles and street warfare over drugs, has its own mock beach, a swimming pool, an outdoor bar and a stage for local rock, rap and jazz bands.

Last month, La Courneuve hit the headlines for another reason. An 11-year-old boy, Sidi Ahmed Hammache, was killed by a stray bullet in a shoot-out over territory between rival drugs-selling gangs. His death caused a nationwide outcry and provoked Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister and would-be next president of France, to say the district's notorious high-rise estate, the Cité des 4000 should be cleaned up with a Karcher, or high-powered hose.

The only water being splashed around in La Courneuve at the weekend was by children playing in a free, 400sq m swimming pool built for La Courneuve-Plage. There was also a beach made from thousands of tons of imported sand, a beach volley-ball court, several trampolines, and kite-making and face-painting stalls for children.

Hatice, a young mother relaxing on a deck-chair at La Courneuve-Plage, said: "I could be on a beach in Turkey." Kamel, 22, a sports monitor at the beach, said July in La Courneuve was usually a tense and depressing time, with nothing to do but to "prop up the walls". He went on: "On the other side of the fence, you're back in the cité, Here, with all the parasols, the music and the pool, you really feel you're by the sea."

In the greater Paris area, there are also suburban plages in poor neighbourhoods including Noisy-le-Grand, Pantin, Bagnolet and at the Stade de France at Saint-Denis. Paris popularised the idea of the urban beach four years ago by closing the express road on the right bank of the Seine, importing sand, palm-trees and deck-chairs and declaring it to be Paris-Plage.

It has been a huge success with Parisians and tourists alike. Only motorists complain. They are forced to take the slow route along streets and boulevards.

Last year, almost four million people visited Paris-Plage. The 2005 version opens on Thursday week for a month, with two miles of free entertainment. An attempt will be made to give this Paris-Plage a whiff of Copacabana. This is the "year of Brazil" in France and the beach on the Seine (no swimming allowed) will be given a Brazilian flavour.

There will be free samba lessons and beach football tournaments and Brazilian music in the evenings. All the usual attractions - a pool, deck-chairs, sand pits, showers, bars, and a free paperback lending library - will return. Although Paris made the idea famous and spread the urban beach bug, the idea began 10 years ago in the northern French town of Saint-Quentin. This year its plage, in front of the town hall, includes two circular pools 11m across, 1,300 tons of sand, football, volleyball and touch rugby.