Few residents of the French tower-block estates believe the result of the election will make any difference to their livesby Shereen El Feki / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
“Connerie”—it’s one of those French words with an extra meaning for English ears—not just “a bloody stupid thing,” its literal translation, but a hint of “con,” or pulling wool over eyes. That pretty well sums up how people see France’s presidential hopefuls from the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois and Les Bosquets—housing estates on the northern outskirts of Paris where the riots of 2005 ignited. “Des conneries, des conneries et plus de conneries,” says Gouneidi Traore, a twentysomething photographer and social worker, when asked about candidates’ proposals to deal with France’s troubled banlieue, home to millions of Arab and African immigrants.
“Banlieue” literally means suburb, but it sounds strange to apply the French term to, say, affluent Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Nicolas Sarkozy used to be mayor; today “banlieue” is synonymous with what the French delicately term “Zones Urbaines Sensibles”—the tower blocks which were ground zero during the riots—or “social revolts,” as many in Clichy-sous-Bois prefer to call them.
Traore’s parents emigrated from Mali in the 1960s; he grew up in the banlieue. He’s something of a local celebrity—popping up in Time magazine and on international television—because he’s the designated guide for journalists venturing into the area. I’ve come with a team to film a documentary for Al Jazeera. Three of the four of us are Muslim, have Arab names, speak Arabic and work for a station with considerable street cred in this part of the world. But even we can’t take a camera into Les Bosquets without a chaperone. Residents are quick to condemn the French press as racist, and are wary of being exploited by journalists. But some are media-savvy, and are willing to dance with the devil if it keeps their problems in the spotlight. “Wait!” says Balastik Dogg, a rapper and one of Traore’s friends, stubbing out his cigarette before we turn on the camera. “We don’t want to give the wrong impression, that we’re not serious.”
Serious is exactly what the problems are in Les Bosquets. Traore gives us a tour—crumbling, rat-infested infrastructure; poor transport links; young men hanging out in doorways, products of sky-high dropout rates in schools and unemployment topping 40 per cent among under-25s; few businesses and virtually no leisure facilities (the slightly surreal equestrian centre on the edge of Les Bosquets is a particular source of derision); and “Fuck Police” graffiti, which wallpapers almost every building. Along the way are glimpses of a darker…