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Sarko's €35bn rail plan for a 'Greater Paris'

A driverless, 24-hour, regional metro system, in the shape of a giant figure eight, will connect Paris to its troubled suburbs by the year 2020, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced today.

M. Sarkozy promised a recession-busting, €35bn investment in new and existing rapid transit systems to help to create a single "Greater Paris" from a jumbled conurbation of 12,000,000 people in the space of 10 years.

"The economic crisis can only be beaten by grand projects," M. Sarkozy said. "There could be no grander project than to create a Greater Paris."

In a speech inaugurating an exhibition of ten architects' visions for a "Grand Paris", President Sarkozy also promised a drive to create a million jobs in the Paris area over 20 years and to build 70,000 homes a year in the capital and its suburbs. He called for a brand new underground station for high-speed, long distance trains at La Défense, just west of the city proper, and the plantation of a new forest near Charles de Gaulle airport to absorb carbon emissions.

There would also be a need, he said, for new "monuments" to rival the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. These would be constructed outside the present city boundary to create the image of a single, dynamic, greener and larger "Paris for the 21st century".

To the disappointment of some, and delight of others, M. Sarkozy side-stepped the anguished question of whether to establish a new political entity for a "Greater Paris", to match Greater London. He said that he wanted to create a "project" for the whole of the Paris area without becoming bogged down in political arguments.

Critics doubt whether a de facto Greater Paris can be achieved without an agreement on eroding the administrative boundaries between the city of Paris (pop 2,000,000) and its surrounding suburbs. President Sarkozy's suggestion yesterday that planning laws should be relaxed to allow the rapid building of new railways, homes and tower blocks also aroused deep suspicions.

The political and economic barriers and poor transport links between Paris and its "banlieues" contributed to the alienation and deprivation which fuelled the suburban riots of November 2005. The British architect Richard Rogers says that he knows "of no other large city in which the heart is so detached from the limbs".

Lord Rogers' team was one of ten invited by M. Sarkozy to put forward suggestions for the development of a "Grand Paris" for the 21st century. The ideas will be on display at the Grand Palais, off the Champs Elysées, from tomorrow.

In his speech opening the exhibition, President Sarkozy promised a ten year programme, starting in 2010 or 2011, to improve rail links between Paris and its two airports and hundreds of satellite towns. He offered Euros 21bn for the "Big Eight": a 130 kilometres (80 miles), driverless, 24-hour metro system in the form of two large loops, joining across the centre of the city.

The northern loop would have a branch to Charles de Gaulle airport and would also – with heavy symbolism - pass through the troubled towns of Montfermeil and Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots began. The southern loop would link the centre of the city to, amongst other places, Orly Airport and Versailles. President Sarkozy also promised another Euros 14bn for the extension and re-equipment of existing Metro, regional metro (RER) and suburban railway lines.