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Seeking the Bill Gates of the banlieues

In 1990, Jacques Attali led a band of capitalist pioneers intent on transforming the former Soviet bloc. Sixteen years on the controversial French technocrat and former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is exploring new financial frontiers with a view to providing micro-credits to young entrepreneurs in his country's blighted banlieues, or suburbs.

As with the EBRD, Mr Attali's latest venture aims to serve a grander political purpose. Providing greater financial opportunities to disaffected immigrant youths should ease their assimilation into society and provide a much needed injection of entrepreneurial vim into France's laggardly economy.

In a public debate on how to respond to the riots that raged across 300 towns last November, Mr Attali argued France's urban youth should be viewed as a vital economic resource rather than a troublesome social problem. Angry young men keen to defy convention and change the world could make great entrepreneurs. 'France will die, it will disappear as a nation unless we learn to exploit this formidable potential,' says Mr Attali.

As president of PlaNet Finance, an international non-profit organisation providing advice and finance to micro-credit agencies in 60 countries, Mr Attali is in a position to turn that vision into reality. His organisation will set up business 'incubators' in six deprived regions ? Lyons, Lille, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Sevran, Mantes-la-Jolie and Toulon ? where it will offer advice, training and finance in its quest to find the 'Bill Gates of the banlieues'. It is in the process of raising ?5m ($6.4m, £3.4m) from private financial institutions to provide seed-corn capital for its venture. 'It is an experiment but if we succeed then the potential for growth and job creation will be enormous,' Mr Attali says. 'There is a huge amount of ideas and talent in the suburbs. We can find people who are hungry, who are willing to do it.'

The former adviser to President François Mitterrand says he has met amazingly motivated young people in the suburbs who are keen to set up businesses, such as computer service companies and pizza delivery firms. He expects the micro-credits to average between ?5,000 and ?10,000, backed by personal or government-supported collateral.

However, one government minister is withering about Mr Attali's 'fashionable' initiative, arguing that the real problem in the banlieues is not lack of credit but excessive bureaucracy. 'Mr Attali is very good at reinventing what already exists,' the minister says. 'The problem in the difficult zones is administrative complexity and the government is already working to simplify the framework for the local economy.'

But Mr Attali is convinced the concept of micro-finance can work just as well in the developed world as it has in Bangladesh, where Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, pioneered small business loans in the 1970s. Mr Attali estimates that up to 1m people in France could start a business given the right incentives and financial mechanisms.

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