As one of the top commercial centers in Europe, Paris has long been home to an amalgamation of immigrants in search of a brighter future. Some were invited to help in rebuilding efforts after the world wars; others came because of unrest or poverty in their homelands. Most settled in the northeast suburbs of the city, where industry was centralized.
These suburbs, in the area called Banlieue 93, have few of the amenities of the central city, renowned as a centerpiece of culture and business. Most industry has pulled out of the area, and what remains are crowded, shoddy housing projects, which consume entire campuses and provide a backdrop for jobless young men.
“Our parents sacrificed for us to offer us a better life and a better future. And it’s very unfair to see that we have the same problems that they had, maybe worse in some way,” says Faiza Guene, 24, a published author whose mother is Moroccan and father is Algerian.
New immigrants, primarily from former French territories in Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal) and southeast Asia, continue to arrive. But many of today’s youth in Banlieue 93 were born in France and are thus legal citizens, though their isolation makes them feel like outsiders. Unlike their parents, many of whom expected eventually to return to their homeland, they see France as their home. Jobless and often poorly educated, their frustration manifested itself in two riots – in 2005 and 2007 – and continues in sporadic sieges today.
Some French-born youth struggle for recognition as citizens. Myriam Saadi, 26, has all of the accoutrements of a French person but often feels like an outsider.
“When my parents came, they were immigrants, but I was born here. I am French, OK? But people are looking at me not as a French girl. I don’t understand why they are still talking about immigrants, about this population, because I was born here.”
Saadi’s frustrations sound like many heard throughout the northeastern suburbs. But on one count, these children are different from a quintessential French child.
France has long prided itself on its secularism. Its census asks for neither religious preference nor country of origin, and in 2004, it banned all religious symbols in public schools. However, many immigrant families are deeply religious and show their faith outwardly.
Audrey Nsan-Nwet, 18, says religious discrimination is widespread. “Discrimination, it’s generally about your religion, specifically when you’re a Jew or a Muslim,” said the Paris resident. “When you’re Muslim, you can be called a terrorist or something like that, and when you’re a Jew, you can be called someone with a lot of money.”
From police who check their IDs constantly to employers who refuse to hire them, minority youth rarely feel like they are accepted as French citizens.
For example, Mareme Kaloga, 20, living in the Clichy suburb, described a situation in which a few of her friends were asked to submit to ID control by several policemen. “What shocked me was the fact that we were black, we were Arabic and we had a friend, she’s white. They controlled everyone except her,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest hardship of living in the northeastern suburbs is the lack of transportation, for it leaves residents with little mobility and little exposure to the rest of the city and its inhabitants. It also makes it harder for them to find jobs.
Rachid Kadioui operates a youth center in Aubervilliers. Last year, he worked with more than 3,000 out-of-work youths.
“When we’re talking about the youth, we say that they are violent, they are very difficult, and they are bad boys. But what I mean is that it’s not them who are violent, who are difficult, but it’s the condition here, which is difficult,” he said.
For example, in suburban Aubervilliers, 57.2 percent of the population is unemployed compared to Paris’ 6.5 percent. Lack of mobility also limits educational opportunities.
According to Marwan Mohammed, a sociologist who grew up in the suburbs, “The school you attend and the degree you hold determines who you are in society,” who noted that in some areas of Seine-Saint-Denis, “failure is the norm … only 30 percent of students graduate from secondary school.”
Unfortunately, suburban youth don’t have much freedom about where they attend school, because their neighborhood largely determines which school they are assigned to, and Banlieue 93 does not have a history of educational excellence.
When the area was filled with factories, most working-class families considered school a luxury and wanted their children to go to work when they were old enough. Indeed, there was no high school in the area’s Seine-Saint-Denis region as late as 1964.
This disregard for education still is apparent in the classroom. Students are often unruly and find school more of a chore than an opportunity. Hugues Lagrange, a sociologist at the elite Sciences Po academy, pointed out that many immigrant families lack formal education, and their children often start having trouble in primary school and don’t get help until it is too late.
Faiza Zerouala, a 25-year-old college student from Paris, whose parents are Algerian, had an early interest in reading and writing and recalled being tormented during her middle-school years because she was a good student. “When you have good marks, you are despised a little,” she said. “They even told me, ‘You are a shame for the Arabic people because you have good marks.’ It’s like a submission for them,” she said.
Many suburban youth feel mischaracterized as violent because of the reputation of their neighborhoods. Others say the French population as a whole is xenophobic, immediately disliking anybody with a foreign-sounding name or face.
Wilhem Birba-Anin, 17, originally from the French West Indies, says he and his friends face prejudice regularly. He recounted a recent incident that happened to him on a subway:
“I pushed somebody and I apologize. It was an old man, and he said that I have to go back in Africa, some sh-- like that. What really shocked me was that the people who were there didn’t do anything. They don’t even react. It was normal.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has recognized the frustration and problems of immigrants and pledged to help. In September, he announced plans to spend 500 million euros (about $729 million) to help young job seekers by expanding unemployment benefits and providing scholarships for career training for teenage dropouts. This was in addition to a 1.3 billion euro unemployment emergency plan enacted in April.
Youth in Banlieue 93 are skeptical. They say they have not seen any of that money, nor have they seen much change at all.
“Sarkozy says that he wants to improve the life in the suburbs, but for him it’s just a little strategy. Sarkozy doesn’t change anything,” said Divine Nsingi, 14, from Villiers-le-Bel.
To most youth, improving the education system should be top priority in the suburbs. In France, education is status.
Sarkozy recently tried to remedy this situation by demanding that Paris’s elite universities admit 30 percent of their students from lower-income families. However, the universities defied Sarkozy’s order, arguing that it would lower their rigorous standards.
While that issue is unsettled, Sarkozy did meet with success last September in his 2008 initiative to reserve 30 percent of positions in preparatory classes for entrance exams to elite universities.
Although education and jobs are the top priorities of suburban residents, improved living conditions follow closely behind. A shift to a more local form of governance not only makes officials more accessible to residents but lends a greater sense of community to the area.
For example, in Clichy-sous-Bois, one of Banlieue 93’s most depressed communities, an activist group called AC le Feu (Enough Fire) works with the local government to meet citizens’ transportation and housing needs. Jeunes Musulmans de France (Young Muslims of France) is another organization that sponsors community-building programs, such as sports programs and tutoring, and provides hot meals for the destitute.
“The whole concept of JMF is if you need help and you can ask help, it’s one of your rights as a citizen of this country, (but) that you can also help solve problems in your own city,” says Asma Soltain, 22, Argenteuil.
Recently, there does seem to be some progress in the suburbs. Government sponsorship of hip-hop events draw youth from all over Paris, and local governments are working on improving transportation and other social services. In addition, the high cost of living in the central city is causing some Parisians to head for the outskirts.
Phelinda Dorcelian, 19, a student in Saint-Denis, says a good education is necessary to get a job and to be more successful than her parents. If people in the suburbs were better educated, she added, they would not have such dark reputations.
Many youth share the attitude that they need to be a part of the solution to the suburbs’ problems. Said Benene Essaji, 23, from Villeneuve: “First of all we have to change ourselves, OK? And then we have to change the French power over us,” she said.
Editor's note: Photographs for this package were taken by Indianapolis Star photographer Kelly Wilkinson and Randy Johnson, Randy Johnson Photography.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press