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Some Paris suburbs may get an upgrade thanks to this summer's Olympic Games

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For decades, French leaders have been promising renewal for the Paris suburbs. The gritty housing projects outside the French capital are known for the despair of generations of young people of immigrant descent. Now, thanks in part to this summer's Olympic Games, things may be changing. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Olympic Village rises in the town of St. Ouen, the closest of Paris' northern suburbs. Paris secured the games partly on the promise to regenerate Seine-Saint-Denis, this region north of the city that remains one of the poorest in France. We meet Karim Bouamrane, mayor of St. Ouen.

KARIM BOUAMRANE: St. Ouen, it's a city like Detroit - a lot of factories, a lot of working-class heroes. And the policy was based on sharing progress and give culture to everyone, give health to everyone, give lodging to everyone.

BEARDSLEY: But when the factories closed in the '70s and '80s, he says the only thing residents shared was poverty and the chasm with Paris widened.

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BEARDSLEY: A huge expansion of public transport, with four new underground lines and 68 stations in the suburbs is being hastened because of the games. Bouamrane says the Olympics are a game changer for the suburbs.

BOUAMRANE: Because it gives the opportunity to bring some big public infrastructures in all of Seine-Saint-Denis. We can testify that Olympic Games give the opportunity to north of Paris to have the same equality than the Paris downtown.

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BEARDSLEY: The day we visit, Bouamrane and other officials were inaugurating a 140,000 square-foot facility that once repaired rail cars. Now it's dedicated to culture, food, music and theater.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Officials remarked jokingly that Paris may soon become the suburb of St, Ouen. The enthusiasm is not shared by everyone. Not far from the event, young men wait their turn for a stylish haircut in a barbershop. Everyone here is of North African descent. They say Paris is another world, and they don't think the Olympics will change that. Thirty-five-year-old hairdresser Mohammed is cutting 23-year-old Rachid's hair. In this country which values privacy, neither wants to give his last name.

MOHAMMED: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Young people will work for a month during the Olympics," says Mohammed. But after that...

RACHID: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The games are more of a hassle than anything else," says Rachid. "Prices, police pressure and problems are going up." Outside the barbershop, 20-year-old Moussa is headed for training. He's an amateur boxer and says he's excited about the games but agrees there's a downside.

MOUSSA: It's a good thing 'cause many boxers of the world, they will come here from America, from Mexico, from Africa. The Olympics bring a lot of opportunities for us all, but the police are a little bit dangerous now.

BEARDSLEY: He says the police are aggressive, always clearing young people off the streets, accusing them of dealing drugs.

MOUSSA: They come and they say, don't stay here. I say, but why? I live here. They don't want that we are on the streets 'cause they think we are not a good image. Too many Black, Moroccan people.

BEARDSLEY: Moussa says many poor families are being forced to move as their buildings are torn down to make way for the Olympic Village.

HOURIA AYADI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: One of them is 63-year-old Houria Ayadi who has lived here her whole life since her parents emigrated from Algeria in the '50s. But she admires the new construction.

AYADI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "They did a good job. They didn't build them on top of each other," she says. After the games, the Olympic Village will become private housing for 6,000 people. A quarter will be reserved for low-income tenants. Ayadi hopes to be one of them.

AYADI: (Through interpreter) I'd like an apartment with a view on the Seine River and with a balcony where I can put my plants.

BEARDSLEY: "I'd like to see the sunsets," she says, "so I've asked for an apartment that faces South." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, St. Ouen, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.