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By Yann Le Guernigou
LE PERREUX-SUR-MARNE, France (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a rare foray into the suburbs of Paris on Tuesday to promise that a surge in the number of security cameras would make life better there.
With regional elections coming up in March and opinion polls showing widespread dissatisfaction with him, Sarkozy used the visit to refocus on the themes of crime and security which served him well during the 2007 presidential election campaign.
"If we are installing more security cameras, it is because those places that have cameras have all experienced a spectacular improvement in security," he told community representatives in the suburb of Le Perreux-sur-Marne.
France has some 22,000 security cameras in public places and the government plans to triple that number by 2012, introducing them into train and subway carriages and troubled schools.
Sarkozy had promised a "Marshall Plan" for France's gritty suburbs, which have high concentrations of people from immigrant backgrounds and the worst unemployment rates in the country.
But during his visit to Le Perreux and two other suburbs, he set aside wider social problems to focus almost exclusively on the issue of crime. He spoke at length about how tax inspectors could help combat drug traffickers and thieves.
"You see people in the housing estates who drive Porsches and other flash cars and who only get up at 5 o'clock in the afternoon," he said, adding that if those people could provide no explanation their luxury goods should be seized and sold.
"Those that we can't catch in the act (of stealing or drug dealing), we will catch them by their lifestyle ... their cars, their watches," he said.
The comments were likely to anger community workers in the suburbs, who have long argued that focussing attention on the criminal minority was unfair because it stigmatised all residents and made life harder for them.
Many in the suburbs feel marginalised from mainstream French society because of poor schools, lack of transport links and discrimination in the job and housing markets. Their anger culminated in weeks of youth riots in late 2005.
Sarkozy, who made his name as a hyperactive interior minister, has been particularly unpopular in the tough areas since he publicly used the word "racaille," or "scum," in October 2005 to describe local troublemakers.
Since then, he has rarely ventured into the volatile suburbs and only with huge security escorts.
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Charles Dick)

Reuters