Few residents of the French tower-block estates believe the result of the election will make any difference to their livesby / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
“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 side to life—two boys smashing open a car window to steal a bag; a young man pulling something from his pocket, and poring over the contents with friends. “That’s Colombian, isn’t it?” one of them asks. Drugs are a serious problem in the area, says Traore.
But I’m in Les Bosquets looking for solutions, not problems. What has happened over the past 18 months to improve life in the banlieue? The answer, says Agnès Faulcon, head of the local social centre, is not much. “People here have been promised change for the past 30 years, and nothing has happened. They have lost confidence in the state,” she says. The relationship between the residents and the Republic is a strange one to outside eyes. Every person I meet lambasts the government for the mess on the housing estates, for the discrimination they face in finding a job, for ignoring their history and treating them as if they were apart from, rather than a part of, mainstream France. And yet they expect the same state to solve their problems as well. “In this, they are very French,” says Patrick Weil, an expert on immigration.
One sign of change are piles of rubble. The neighbouring city halls have embarked on a €550m renovation project, which includes knocking down three fifths of the existing housing, replacing hideous towers with low-rise, leafy apartment complexes and renovating the rest. Further down the line, there are plans for a new mosque, a police station and even a tramway. It looks lovely on paper, and the goal—to de-ghettoise the estates by luring in different populations, including the “Francais de souche,” or French French, who fled in the 1980s and 1990s—is appealing in theory. But it is proving unpopular on the ground, where residents—who, unusually for the estates, largely own their flats—complain that they are not being offered a fair price to move out.
Many of the residents of Les Bosquets and Clichy-sous-Bois are voting for the first time in the current presidential race; voter registration is up by 18 per cent in Clichy-sous-Bois since 2005. AC Le Feu, a local NGO, has been travelling the country, collecting 20,000 complaints from young people on employment, education, housing, policing, citizenship and other hot topics; they’ve drafted these grievances into a checklist for voters, which several candidates, among them Ségolène Royal, have formally endorsed.
Although immigrants and their offspring make up less than 5 per cent of the French electorate, with the race so close, Patrick Weil reckons their vote could make a difference to the outcome. But few residents I spoke to thought the election would make much of a difference to their lives, even if the banlieue favourite, Royal, wins. “There’s no one from an African or Arab background who really represents our interests,” says Traore—that’s more likely at the local level where he, and many of his neighbours, are placing their faith. And if Sarkozy wins? “Burn, the place will burn,” shouted a group of schoolkids.