France’s Banlieu Blues

The plot is high youth unemployment and crowded housing, the subplot, the disenfranchisement of minorities, and the opening scenes of the drama are neighborhood riots and high school violence. Somewhere in the background a rap music sound track heightens tension…

These could be the elements for a movie on inner city U.S.A., except this is Outer City Paris. “Some of these banlieu (suburb) neighborhoods make the South Bronx, where I grew up, seem quiet and safe in comparison,” says race relations expert  Vennea Young. “It’s frightening.”

The latest outbreak of violence took place just across the river from the seignorial mansions of Maisons-Laffitte, in a “ghetto” where, according to Le Figaro, “the police have not dared venture for a long time.” On March 27, at a Sartrouville housing project called Les Indes, Djamel Chetouh, a young Beur (French born, Arab descent) was killed by a shopping center guard. The incident touched off several days of store-burning, stone-throwing riots. Although the security guard was also Maghrebin (North African Arab), the underlying cause of the violent reaction was linked to racism.

This incident fell on the heels of other disturbances in Argenteuil and Vaulx-en-Velin, in what Le Figaro called the “malaise of the banlieus.” Just what is going on out there? And is Paris connected to all this by more than just an R.E.R. commuter network?

For many Parisians, the banlieus are no nearer in psychological geography than the Asian Steppes. According to Francois Maspero, author of the recent prize-winning book, Les Passagers du Roissy-Express, too many Parisians see the suburbs “as a shapeless magma of ten million inhabitants, a series of grey, indifferent constructions, a circular purgatory with Paris-Paradise at the center.”

The story of the banlieus begins, as Maspero chronicles, with the exodus out of the core of Paris of a whole sector of population, artisans, employees, small businesses, pushed out of the city by rising rents, urban renewal and sales of properties.

Outside the core of Paris but still within the city proper is the band of outer arrondissements which form a ring around the city, from the north, east and south. The primary drama of these districts is massive urban renewal. A day doesn’t pass when neighborhood residents are seen snapping photos of buildings that are destined to be demolished.

With the high-rise apartments comes gentrification. A most notable reaction to this process occurred at Place de la Reunion, 20th Arrondissement, where a squatters’ movement maintained a tent city for five months. Led by a quixotic gentleman nicknamed Babar(the Mitch Snyder of Paris), and supported generously by nearby commerce and schools, the movement culminated in housing for all 48 squatter families, many of whom are immigrants.

Despite tenant defense movements, the push-out process escalates, passing through an elaborate psychological wall that has replaced the medieval rampart that once surrounded the city of Paris.Try to walk into this privileged city from the outside and you arrive at the edge of a huge moat, the submerged Peripherique expressway. If you come to the edge of the expressway at the wrong point, it’s a lengthy lateral walk until you come to a “porte’ of entry involving a labyrinth of traffic circles. Once across this first barrier, there is the psychological moat of the austere outer boulevard. Once again, a lateral trek may be necessary before you can cross. Within these moats is an irregular but imposing wall of high-rise apartment buildings which intimidate further penetration of the city.

The communities just outside these barriers may be near to Paris geographically but they are psychologically remote. These suburbs immediately outside of the Peripherique are called the “banlieus rouges” (red belt) because their inhabitants traditionally elected communist mayors. With street names such as Place Salvador Allende and Rue Lenine, the city of Bagnolet(just east of Paris) is a typical example. Its monthly magazine carries articles on tenant defense organizations, rap music and labor movements.

Here begin the large, low-income housing projects, HLM (habitation à loyer modèré), which in the outer suburbs is taken to the extreme: building complexes nicknamed according to the number of households. Most noteworthy: Les 3,000 d’Aulnay and Les 4,000 de la Corneuve.

Although the inner suburbs are usually reached by metro, the outer suburbs require not only an R.E.R. commuter line but often a bus trip tacked on. The exodus that began with the struggle to find scarce and affordable housing is aggravated by a fatiguing commute. For low and moderate-income commuters, the day’s journey may end in an HLM, in which masses of people are hutched into large and heartless blocks or tower structures, where hopelessness and desperation become contagious.

These are the conditions under which the Sartrouville riots erupted. As in the projects of inner city U.S.A., the outer city Paris large HLM blocks are often breeding grounds for gangs, drugs, crime and violence.

The image of large housing blocks, however, encourage simplistic analysis. The more the banlieu is explored, the more its residents are interviewed, the more dimensions must be added to this story. It is a story of working class French people battling to survive. French gardeners with only room now for a few flower pots. It is also the story of numerous ethnic groups: Malians, Tunisians, Algerians, Haitians, Senegalese, as well as the offspring of these immigrants, Beurs and their counterpart, the “Négropolitain.”

As a result of the ethnic character of many low-income housing projects, the French press has adopted the American word “ghetto.” Outer city Paris is not a copy of inner city U.S.A. According to Ms. Young, “there is little or no white flight. It’s just too difficult, too expensive to flee.” Others are not about to give up their community roots. Here and there you can find a large tenement inhabited exclusively by Malians, for example, or even a 1,000-family HLM such as Cité des Marroniers, with 80 per cent Maghrebins. But there is nothing that remotely compares in size with Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Watts or Southeast D.C.

Wherever racial tensions have developed, the rabidly anti-immigrant Front National (FN) fans the flames. This ultra-nationalist political party, which claims around 15% of the national polls, opposed the Gulf War on the notion of “why fight the Arabs so far away when nothing is being done to contend with them here in France?”

Some suburbs oppose the FN ideology with concrete social experiments. One such example is the model multiracial community, Val-Fourre, with 60 different ethnic groups among 28,000 inhabitants. Even in the toughest neighborhoods, there are theater and music festivals. Residing at the Maladerie housing project in Aubervilliers is an extensive artist colony. The French government has strongly encouraged ethnic art and music with festivals and cultural centers.

Despite some bright spots in the banlieus, the exploding social problems of suburbia are destined to be the major story in France during the final decade of this century.  Paris is not exempt from this crisis. Much of the city’s work force comes in via the bus-R.E.R.-metro trek. Paris strikes and demonstrations have large banlieu contingents. Paris graffiti often stems from the banlieu youth’s unchanneled rebellion against the center of power. At the same time, numerous Paris professionals are employed in outer area schools, hospitals and industry.

The northern suburb of Drancy serves as a poignant example of the banlieu drama. Its human geography is richly multicultural, its youth are in crisis and its varied outward appearance defies facile clichés. Drancy’s La Cite de la Muette stands as an ironic symbol of the housing predicament.

In 1935, La Cite de la Muette became one of the most heralded low-income housing experiments. Then from 1941-44, it was converted, rather easily, into a concentration camp, from which 100,000 men, women and children, mostly Jewish, were deported to their death. Today it is once more a housing project.

As a monumental block, it is imposing, propped up by sad rows of small stores, with none of the creative asymmetry of modern housing experiments. False balconies add a barred-in effect.

The youth who reside in these projects are the primary players in the current banlieu story. They attend Drancy’s high school a few blocks down the road. At the school’s entrance is a colorful mosaic mural but the classrooms are barren. Graffiti on desks and walls tries unsuccessfully to break the monotony. The students go from boxed-in housing to boxed-in schooling.

Mrs. Monica Moisi, originally from New Jersey, explains that she is quite fond of her students, that a tougher bunch could be found. In the cafeteria, several teachers agree that the multicultural background of the student body adds an exciting dimension to the job. But they also agree that there are times when the stress level rises dangerously near the breaking point.

The students file in. There are Beurs, Africans, West Indians, Vietnamese. Roughly half are not of immigrant background. If this is a ghetto, it is only so in the economic sense. Many of them will not complete high school, with little or no chance for employment.

Youth unemployment in the suburbs is as high as 40%. This is aggravated, adds Vennea Young, “by a subtle but pervasive racism against immigrants that causes resentment to boil within.

“Yes, it is true,” she says, “that neighborhoods are more integrated. But the media is far less integrated than in the U.S. Africans in particular have no popular forum here, nothing like Ebony or the Amsterdam News.”

The Beur may be in the most vulnerable dilemma of all. His situation is remarkably analogous to the ‘Cholo’ Mexican-Americans of Southwestern United States. The Beur has no future back in North Africa; he was not born there, has no roots. But in France, he is considered by many as a foreigner.

According to Le Figaro, the Sartrouville incident escalated when troublemakers came from nearby communities. The prefecture spoke of organized gangs. Political leaders exchanged bitter attacks about future HLM policies. Meanwhile the frustration simmers. One resident said: “Here we have nothing. All this because we are Arab. Djamel was our brother.”

Can France find a formula for its banlieu crisis? The Nouvel Observateur has suggested that there is a “lack of lucidity” in dealing with the problem. Perhaps inner city U.S. and outer city Paris should put their heads together, with the help of people such as Vennea Young, who have experienced the crisis on both sides of the Atlantic.

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