Help for French suburbs met with hostility

PARIS — When the blighted housing projects ringing major French cities exploded in nationwide riots, France pledged quick action to fix them. Seven years on, the suburban projects remain islands of despair, lofty promises of rebirth largely forgotten. So a new plan to spend millions to help residents turn their neighborhoods around seemed cause for celebration.

Instead, it met a wall of resistance and outright hostility. The reason: the benefactor was the wealthy Arab emirate of Qatar.

The oil-rich state smaller than the size of Connecticut has exerted an outsized influence as a global bankroller, putting it at the cutting edge of an accelerating power shift between traditional Western powers and emerging economies.

As Europe is engulfed in crisis, Qatar has been on a global spending spree, buying stakes in luxury brands, acquiring soccer club Paris St. Germain and financing London’s “Shard” — the EU’s tallest building.

Now, to the consternation of the French, the emirate wants to make a major humanitarian investment in the West.

It all started a year ago when 10 enterprising local officials from the heavily immigrant suburbs bypassed France’s sleek diplomatic machine and knocked on the door of Qatar’s emir with a request for help to fund the dreams of budding entrepreneurs without means.

In fairytale fashion, their wish was fulfilled beyond their expectations: The emir pledged a $65 million investment fund.

But the offer met a storm of protests by politicians back home, horrified that an outsider would leave its footprint in France’s restive neighborhoods.

Wounded pride may have played a role. Many found it hard to accept that a small Arab country might succeed where France itself had fallen short.

“France failed in its mission,” said Leila Leghmara, one of the officials who made the trip to Qatar. “And now Qatar looks like the savior ... We touched where it hurt.”

Permeating the hostile response was suspicion that the tiny Muslim state may have a special agenda at a time when fears of terrorism by Islamist extremists and a perceived infiltration of Muslim culture in French life have been on the rise. Was Qatar using its deep pockets to buy the sympathies of the many Muslims in the housing projects — and ultimately become a power broker within France itself?