77,78,91,92,93,94,95. They may be random numbers to someone who is not from France, but a French person will quickly associate them with the departments directly surrounding Paris: the `banlieue`. Some parts of the banlieue provide their inhabitants with reasonably quiet life at affordable prices. Other parts regularly appear on national and international news for their frequent outbreaks of violence, with Villiers-le-Bel as a recent example. The issues in the banlieue may be extreme at times, they do reveal problems that haunt all of France under the surface: unemployment, segregation, racism and poverty.
I start my day looking for people who at first sight appear to be immigrants. I quickly notice that identifying immigrants is not very easy. When I find a group of three boys in the centre of Paris, the one who looks most French turns out to be Serbian while the two black boys standing next to him are French citizens, born and raised. Nicolas (23, photo) is from the overseas territory of Martinique. He came to France to study, but still spends four months of every year back at home in the Carribean.
`Most of the French are not actively racist, they are just completely indifferent to foreigners`
Nicolas thinks that French are not necessarily racists, but at least indifferent to others. Not only in France M?tropolitaine, mainland France, but also when they are on holiday. `They behave like colonists, as if they own the place`, he says. As far as integration problems are concerned, he says that your post code the way you speak French is decisive in the opportunities you can create in life. Postcodes are also important. `Having the wrong postcode is even worse than having an exotic family name`, Nicolas says.
Henri (37) has Guinean parents but is otherwise 100% French. He also refers to France`s colonial past and how they systematically refuse to take responsibility for it. `It`s not even part of history education in school`, he complains. Henri lives in Evry (91) where the situation is currently quite calm. He blames much of the riots on excessive violence or simply mistakes by police forces. Henri denies that racism is not even part of the banlieue issues. `When you grow up there, your neighbours are your friends. You are all in the same situation of living in unfavourable conditions. The similarities exceed the differences, and everybody dislikes the police`, he says.
Henri pities the fact that none of the football players in the national team, any of whom have foreign origins, have ever openly served as a role model. `They could have shown people how much you can achieve if you want to, but instead, they are more worried about sponsor contracts than about French society as a whole.
Aur?lien (34) is from Congo-Brazzaville and works in a clothes shop in Paris. He believes in opportunities, but says that foreigners are not easily adopted. `The French have a lot of money but they are not willing to share it with others`, he says, `Having foreign origins is a disadvantage when you look for a job. The second generation of immigrants further degrades the image of foreigners. They are lost between two cultures and often pick the worst of both. Their rejection of authority makes it very hard for them to find their ways.`
One of the banlieue cities that does not have a very good name is Saint-Denis. It is located at the end of metro line 13, which is one of Paris`s most multicultural metro lines. By the time a metro carriage gets to the terminal station of Saint-Denis Universit?, hardly anybody recognisable as French, or even Western European, will still be on board. Instead, a rich mixture of any other nationality dominates the tunnels and the entire city of Saint Denis.
Saint-Denis, like many of the infamous cities in the north-eastern banlieue, mainly consists of tall, concrete apartment buildings from the 1960s. International call-shops, kebab places and caf?s align the streets. Youngsters move in small groups that disintegrate and recompose themselves every now and then. The prevailing dress-code is different from the one in Paris. Many youngsters wear hats or capes that partly cover their faces. In the same way, buildings are surrounded by higher fences. Saint-Denis obviously was not built to make people feel welcome and the people who live there have apparently adapted to their local environment.
The other side
Karim (22) was born in Saint Denis. He is unemployed and calls himself `retired at young age`. Nevertheless, he hopes that the authorities will soon help him find a job. Apart from a job, he also wants the authorities to show respect for the difficult living conditions in the banlieue. `The police has carte blanche here, they can do whatever they want. It`s all one-way traffic, nobody is listening to us, but we all need to listen to them`, he says.
He has tried to find a job himself, but coming from Saint Denis does not put you in an enviable position. There are very few people from Saint Denis who `make it` elsewhere in France. And within the department, unemployment rates are sky-high. Karim explains: `We have no opportunities other than depending on the ASSEDIC (unemployment benefit). You won`t get a job if you are not sufficiently educated, you don`t get a job if you have too many diplomas, because it means you will be expensive. If you do manage to get a job at some point, you will be paid under minimum wage and employers exploit you anyway.`
Many youngsters dream of having their own company one day. Karim mentions the options of opening a taxiphone (callshop), something in telecom, a cybercaf? or a transportation company. Being your own boss seems to be the only way to prevent yourself from having to listen to one. Being a shop assistant seems to be the ultimate career opportunity in Saint Denis. The central pedestrian areas and shopping mall are the main sources of activity. Other industries are those connected with keeping law and order, but these jobs are usually only available to people from outside the department itself.
Karim explains that the conditions are very favourable for youngsters to engage in criminal behaviour: `If you see your friends get their driver`s licence and buy a car, you think of ways to do the same. That`s why there`s so much crime and drug trafficking going on. It`s one out of only very few ways to achieve something here. You learn how to take care of yourself if nobody else does it for you. It`s very exceptional for people to escape the system. Some people move away to other banlieue cities like Beauvais or Cergy, which are considered to have more favourable living conditions. Moving to Paris is virtually impossible. Also, everybody rents houses here so they don`t have anything to sell and make money. It doesn`t even necessarily have to do anything with nationality or cultural background. In Saint Denis, the majority of people who are French and have French parents grow up in the same climate as the immigrants do.`
The ongoing massive presence of armed police forces in the banlieue is a pain to some, but a relief to others. Jasna (27) is originally Serbian but lives in France since 1998. She works as a shop assistant and complains about endless domestic and public violence in the city, especially against women. She hopes that repression will make the streets safer. Until then she counts on her social skills to avoid the `bad ones` - something she has become quite good at since her arrival in France.
Still, very few people in the banlieue believe that the new government is able to solve the banlieue problems. They are accused of looking at symptoms of the problems, rather than underlying reasons. President Sarkozy is accused of further degrading the image of the banlieue, resorting to repression instead of problem solving.
Earlier during the day, Maxime (25) referred to the the current political style as `neo-colonial liberalism`: `Media and politics are focussing on differences between people and they seem to be keen to widen the gap instead of trying to bridge it. With Sarkozy in power, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Working more to earn more is an idea that sounds nice, but some people don`t even have work and others would also like to have a life rather than to work just to stay alive`, he says. He further fears that problems which are now mostly limited to the banlieue will spread across France and into the city centres. And many French fear along with him for just that to happen.
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