PARIS – "Don't be indulgent!" the French policeman barks at a group of youths. "No excuses!"
For many from the troubled Paris suburbs that were engulfed by rioting last fall, being yelled at by police is nothing new. But these youths are on the side of the law, and are learning how to write parking tickets.
They are among dozens of young people from the capital's tough suburban areas in a fast-track training course to become police officers — a program designed to address high unemployment levels in poor, largely immigrant neighborhoods.
"I never thought I'd do this job, because police work has a negative image," said Najma Azzouz, 24, who hails from a working-class part of northern Paris. "Even the officers whom we interned with said, 'You're a surprise. We expected a bunch of hoodlums."'
The "Cadets of the Republic" program started last fall just before France was swept by a wave of rioting by marauding youths who burned thousands of cars, clashed with police and vandalized shops across impoverished suburbs.
The program aims to respond to many of the problems that led to the rioting — discrimination faced by Arab and black immigrants and their French-born children in the poor suburbs, widespread suspicion of police and high youth unemployment.
Officially, France does not have an affirmative action policy similar to the one in the United States that is designed to give a hand to minorities and women who have historically suffered discrimination in education and employment.
The cadet program is about as close as it gets here, although the riots did generate some support for the notion of "positive discrimination" in France.
One-third of the cadets in the program are from immigrant families; some were high school dropouts. They were never troublemakers themselves, but some of their fellow youths from the rough neighborhoods might have been. A few were jobless, but most were stuck in a cycle of low-paying, temporary jobs like delivery work.
"The idea is to give them a second chance," said Lt. Raymond Fradelin, one of the program's directors. "It's youths their age who take up roles as troublemakers. In some ways, these cadets recognize themselves among them — but have chosen the other side."
Tipped off about the program by unemployment offices or local police stations, 180 youths aged 18 to 26 applied for entry last fall and 50 cleared screening tests and made the cut. The program does not require a high school diploma.
But there are constraints. Families and friends are sometimes skeptical. The cadets receive a stipend equal to just half France's minimum wage. One woman quit under pressure from her husband, who disliked the toughness she was learning.
Last month, the cadets became "security assistants" — a step beneath a full officer — and can now carry weapons. They will join police forces in August and take the police academy entrance exam in the fall.
At seminars, cadets learn how to salute, stand at attention and wheel around on a heel in formation. They practice writing tickets, study the criminal code and train in first aid, firearms and self-defense. On occasion, they intern at police stations.
At a recent training session, Maj. Patrick Fleurence shouted instructions on giving parking tickets. "Don't be indulgent! ... This car is going to be ticketed. Period."
Many trainees had dreamed of joining the police. Others see the program as a smart career move. Most didn't have run-ins themselves with the law growing up, but some had friends who did, and said they would be ready to arrest them if necessary.
"If I were a baker, let's say, I would still make my friends pay for a baguette. It's the same thing," said Andy Cozuro, 19, who grew up on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.