Skip to comments.End of republican ideal in French high-rise hell
Posted on 01/08/2003 12:03:02 AM PST by TheMole
The constitution promises equality for all citizens. But immigrants in crime-ridden sink estates tell a startlingly different story
Jon Henley in Val-Fourré
Tuesday January 7, 2003
Funnelled between grey tower blocks, a bitter wind shrieks across Val-Fourré's main square. The few shoppers there hug the concrete walls for shelter. Kids hang around on corners in big-logo parkas and tight woollen hats, smoking, joking, staring. Here you'll be fine, someone says. But don't go down to the end of the road, not on your own.
It is claimed that Val-Fourré is Europe's largest council estate, housing 28,000 people (officially; the real figure is far higher) from 29 different ethnic groups in high-rise, run-down blocks built in the 60s and 70s for immigrant workers at the car factories that then lined the Seine valley.
Violence is a daily fact of life; muggings, thefts, drug deals, battles with gangs from nearby estates. Val-Fourré has sky-high unemployment and soaring school drop-out rates. It is a place where the police are public enemy number one and even doctors and bus drivers are fair game.
Val-Fourré is less than 50 miles from Paris, but it marks a frontier - a point where, to most intents and purposes, the concept of the French Republic ceases to exist. "The people who live here live next door to France," says Yasser Amri, one of the few young men who have grown up in Val-Fourré to have a realistic hope of escaping it - at 20, he is preparing for the entrance exams to one of France's celebrated grandes écoles.
"It's the end of the republican ideal. The French republic deals with citizens, not individuals. But here, people aren't citizens. They don't know what they are. Not Algerian or Moroccan or west African, but not French citizens either. They're unrecognised, unremembered and unrepresented. No wonder they rebel."
The rebellion of its immigrant-filled suburbs has fuelled what is almost a collective psychosis in France. It fanned the fears that prompted nearly 6 million French people to vote for the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in last year's presidential elections, and lies behind the unprecedented zero-tolerance crime crackdown spearheaded by the hardline new interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.
There are now 1,100 banlieues sensibles (sink estates) across France. Since September 11 the country's growing fear of these places has been compounded by a more potent unease: it escaped no one's attention, for example, that several of the radical Islamic militants arrested in France this year lived in Val-Fourré - an estate where there is, on average, just one child of native French origin per school class.
Since taking office, the centre-right government has budgeted an extra 9.2bn (£6bn) to fight crime and announced plans to hire 13,500 more police officers. For the first time since the 1950s, frequent young offenders can now be sent to youth detention centres from the age of 13. Swearing at a policeman or government official could bring a fine of up to 30,000 (£19,430) and a two-year jail sentence, and police powers to search vehicles and frisk individuals have been radically extended. Mr Sarkozy has introduced legislation making youths who gather in stairwells or other communal areas of tower blocks liable to two months in jail.
Opponents say Mr Sarkozy is "repression-crazed", "out to criminalise poverty" and is treating teenagers as "a dangerous underclass". But he lambasts the "do-good intelligentsia" and insists that "human rights should, first and foremost, be for the victims". In recent polls, more than 60% of the French population agrees with him.
In the decaying tower blocks of Val-Fourré, the heightened level of police activity - often in the form of endless and apparently unjustified identity checks - is seen as just one more provocation.
Social workers say Mr Sarkozy's approach is bound to backfire. "These kids are angry enough already," says one youth worker who has asked not to be named. "More police, fine. But where's the money for better education, activities, counselling, parental help, the whole preventive arsenal? Sarkozy's tackling the symptoms, not the causes. Those go to the heart of France, where no one wants to look."
For in all France's grand republican creed, there is no more sacred article than the principle that everyone is equal and indistinguishable in the eyes of the state: no matter where they come from, French citizens are identical in their Frenchness.
Unofficial estimates, however, reckon that up to a quarter of the population has at least one foreign parent or grand parent. Similarly, only non-official reports are available to show that unemployment among 20- to 29-year-olds of north African origin is running at up to 40%, against 10% for youths of French origin.
Unlike in the US or Britain, under France's "republican model of integration", the idea that different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups might enjoy rights and recognition due to their particular minority status is unthinkable.
That integrationist approach worked fine for earlier waves of mainly European immigrants, but it has not done so for those from north and west Africa. Places such as Val-Fourré, Montfermeil and Trappes around Paris - and the hundreds of other banlieues sensibles - are where that republican model has broken down.
"You deny people their community, and therefore their personal history and identity," Yasser says. "Then you herd them into a ghetto and deny them decent housing, decent jobs and a proper democratic voice. Voting here is meaningless, an absurd notion. There's a huge gulf between what people want and what any politician has ever delivered. This is another world."
Mamoudou, another youth, chimes in: "You can get all the diplomas you like, but if you apply for a job from Val-Fourré you've no chance. They'll take someone else from another neighbourhood. From five years old, they look at you as if you're going to nick the till when you walk into the baker's. There's no way out."
Val-Fourré is not all bad news. In an outbuilding of the Collège Chénier secondary school is a minor phenomenon called Radio Droit de Cité, or RDC, broadcasting 24 hours a day on 95.5FM.
RDC is quite famous in France. Sponsored now by the likes of the Coca-Cola Foundation, it started life 10 years ago as the school's radio club, with one turntable in a cellar. Some 60 local teenagers now help to run the station, presenting and producing their own shows.
There is music, but also sport, interviews, phone-ins, documentaries, community information. It is, as one Val-Fourré journalist puts it, "a voice for the voiceless". The kids know their audience; they speak its language. A dozen have gone on to jobs in national broadcasting.
Angelique, 15, and Christine, 16, present a weekly show that often looks at the problems of being a teenage girl in places such as Val-Fourré. "It's not quite the hell the media says it is," Angelique says, "but you need to win respect. You need a big brother and you need a big mouth."
Litany of violence
For Noreddine Mahigoune, 17, RDC has "opened doors and horizons I didn't even know existed. It's like a gangway between the estate and the outside world. It's a way to engage with what's out there, to show we're not just no-hopers, that there are positive things, potential, in Val-Fourré. It is a possible way out."
However, the French television cameras that come to Val-Fourré prefer to linger on the graffiti-filled walls, sewage-strewn cellars, the hate-filled 12- and 13-year-olds, brutal gang rapes and the mind-numbing daily litany of violence.
Occasionally, the place erupts. Days of rioting followed the death of Youssef Khaif, killed by a police bullet in 1991. When the case against Pascal Hiblot finally came to court last year, he was acquitted of all charges. "There's no such thing as justice here, we all know it," says Aziz, 16. "We could all be the next Youssef."
In the face of all this, the local mayor, Pierre Bédier, an ally of President Jacques Chirac and rising star of France's centre-right government, has proposed arming the traditionally unarmed municipal police force. He has also spent a chunk of funds from a European Union scheme intended to assist "the economic and social rehabilitation of neighbourhoods in difficulty" on hi-tech surveillance equipment, saying it will "help relieve tensions".
But no amount of cctv cameras will relieve the tensions that have built up over decades. "Sometimes it feels like you're living in a civil war already," says Yasser. "And if anything like the events of 1991 happen again here, it really will be civil war. They'll send in the army."