A tram journey through France's heart of darkness

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The Independent Online

Mamadou Omadou laughs derisively when asked whether Le Tramway has improved life in his poor suburb of north Paris.

He points from one of the stops on the state-of-the-art tram system, completed 18 months ago, to an adjoining junkyard full of the freshly blackened carcasses of cars and vans.

The politics student, 20, whose Senegalese parents came to France when he was two, said: "Yeah, the tram has improved things - look, it gives you a great view of all the bangers burnt up by the rioters. It's clean, it's efficient and it does what it's supposed to do - it gets you from one shithole to another without coming near any rich people."

When it was completed in December 2003, Le Tramway 1 was hailed as making good on a promise by the government to link the isolated banlieues, or suburbs, that have been the focus of 13 nights of rioting, with the rest of Paris.

Starting close to the striking medieval basilica in the historic quarter of St Denis, where kings of France are buried, the £60m light rail system runs through a succession of the quartiers difficiles or rundown neighbourhoods to the outskirts of central Paris and the 19th Arrondissement.

From La Courneuve to Blanc Mesnil to Drancy, Le Tramway takes 45 minutes to glide through some of the French capital's grimmest neighbourhoods.

It is a journey that epitomises the disconnection between a modern gleaming France that produces urban transport that Londoners can only dream of, and the concrete ghettoes it serves, where disenfranchised young people were just days ago throwing petrol bombs at buses for kicks.

When The Independent boarded the tram yesterday at Bobigny, an administrative hub north-east of central Paris where the network starts, it would have been hard to find a more diverse mix of passengers anywhere.

A west African woman, wearing traditional robes, sat next to a Chinese man while a group of French-Algerian schoolgirls giggled over a text message on one of their mobile phones. Two Bangladeshi men chatted while a north African woman wearing a veil manoeuvred her pushchair and accepted a seat given up by an Albanian busker.

It is a picture of multi-ethnic harmony continued three stops down the track at the Marché de la Ferme, Bobigny's teeming market. Traders hawk yams and Middle Eastern spices to shoppers drawn from former colonial possessions across four continents.

But Abdul Mahfouz, 45, argues from behind his stall selling Tunisian fritters that, although the Marché de la Ferme is in France, the last thing it is is French. He said: "We're happy here. There's lots of different nations and although life isn't easy for a lot of people, we mostly get on. But this isn't France. I will see one or two white French people in here every day. Even then, they are probably officials from the town hall. There is a real divide between the banlieues and the rest of Paris. We are a little island of foreigners all together."

Some 10 minutes further down the line, past the junkyard holding around 80 of the 3,000 cars burnt in the Paris region in the past fortnight, stand the tatty tower blocks of La Courneuve where at least some of the wrecked vehicles would have met their end in the running clashes between youths and police.

The least alluring blocks, with peeling paint dotted by graffiti, are due for demolition, to be replaced by new low-rise social housing. Mikhail, a Serbian refugee who said he was 14 but looked closer to 18, lives in a block due to be pulled down. He speaks in the same nihilistic terms as many involved in the violence. "I don't really care where we get moved. It will still be the same - no work, no money, lots of police.

"My friends went out during the riots. It was a bit of fun. We don't have much else to do. It's very easy to be forgotten up here."

The 45-minute tram journey is not a tour of unremitting urban degradation. The estates are punctuated by stretches of solid brick houses with large gardens and tree-lined streets. A number of hi-tech factories boast names such as Bosch and Phillips.

But a look in an estate agent's window in La Courneuve tells the true story about life alongside Tramway 1. A large flat sells for as little as €120,000 (£80,000) in this part of Greater Paris and it does not matter on which side of the tracks it stands.

Thierry Delagrange, an estate agent in the area for the past 10 years, said: "We are no more than five miles from the Eiffel Tower. The transport links are good, especially with the tram. But the middle classes are not really interested. Here a flat can stay unsold for two years. That's the difference of living in the banlieues."

As the tram reaches St Denis, at the other end of the line in Bobigny court proceedings were starting yesterday for a number of those arrested during the riots. Again they include a range of ethnic origins, from north African to west African to east European and white French. As Mr Omadou put it: "The tram will get you from your court hearing and back home again in half the time it used to. That's what progress means in the banlieues."