A "Precarious Calm" In French Suburbs

April 28, 2006: A “Precarious Calm” In French Suburbs

Posted on Fri, Apr. 28, 2006

A 'precarious calm' in French suburbs
Associated Press

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France – Six months after France's housing projects blew up in riots and awakened the nation to an ugly reality, promises and gestures have piled up. But so far, according to those meant to benefit from this new deal, there's little sign of change, and the danger of a new outbreak of rioting is real.

“Calm has returned but it's a precarious calm. The smallest spark risks an explosion,” said Samir Mihi, who runs a sports program for youths and acted as an informal mediator during the unrest.

“We live in fear of a new October 27,” he said, referring to the start of three weeks of rioting, car burnings and attacks on police that raged through housing projects and laid bare decades of discrimination against France's black and Arab citizens.

The anxiety and soul-searching that engulfed France has produced a string of small, practical measures.

Anonymous resumes are being permitted, to give job seekers a foot in the door before having to reveal their immigrant origins. Undercover monitoring of nightclubs, employment agencies and others has been legalized to stop them from turning away people on the basis of their looks. Youths can quit school at 14 to learn a trade.

Parents will have to send their kids to school and keep them out of trouble or risk losing welfare benefits. Companies moving into inner cities will get tax breaks. Cuts in funding for associations that work with troubled teens have been reversed. The government is planning to move more families out of squalid public housing.

Most controversial in this Equal Opportunities Law was a loosening of legal job protections to encourage companies to take a chance on first-time job-seekers and ease jobless rates of up to 50 percent in banlieues, or suburbs – townships where immigrants are concentrated.

That clause provoked a fresh spasm of unrest in March, this time by middle class students and trade unions fearing it would put France on a slippery slope toward unraveling its whole social contract.

President Jacques Chirac was forced to reverse course, dumping the contested clause.

As the riots of last fall were dying down, Chirac had gone on national television to assure “the children of difficult neighborhoods, whatever their origins, that they are all the daughters and sons of the Republic.”

Saliou Diallo, deputy mayor of Evry, a riot-scarred neighborhood south of Paris, praised Chirac's statement for cutting to the heart of the problem – alienation. But he dismissed the government's remedies as “half-measures,” saying what was needed was “a sort of Marshall Plan” like the aid package that lifted Europe out of the rubble of World War II.

The projects dotting big city banlieues are still France's fault line, zones of poverty and lawlessness disconnected from mainstream life. The tall towers and long blocks teem with immigrants and children of immigrants.

Local officials want bigger, stronger changes. “The accumulation of injustices is too much and the devastating feeling of being definitively left behind is spreading,” they wrote to Chirac in February in a letter signed by hundreds of people from the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris.

Sebastian Roche, a sociologist specializing in delinquency and violence, remains pessimistic.

“There is no reason to hope for rapid change,” he said. “The situation in April 2006 is no better than in October 2005.” He notes that police never ordered an internal investigation after the rioting, and suggested presidential election politics were at play.

Still, the revolt awakened a tiny sense of empowerment among France's forgotten citizens. Some are now helping themselves.

Movie star Jamel Debbouze of “Amelie” and “She Hate Me” fame, clothing designer Mohamed Dia – both sons of immigrants – and rapper Joey Starr teamed up in December to get out the minority vote in next year's presidential and legislative elections.

A collective of citizens launched a 38-city tour April 10 to press minorities to vote and contribute to a “book of complaints” to be presented to lawmakers in October.

The establishment has taken notice too. Medef, the leading employers' group, is backing an association of business people coaching disadvantaged youths entering the job market. France's top TV network, responding to a presidential demand for racial diversity on television, hired a black, Harry Roselmack, to anchor this summer's nightly news.

But the only change Karim Benachour sees is a lower profile by police in Clichy-sous-Bois, the area on the outskirts of Paris where the rioting began. “People don't want the police back here again,” said Benachour, a 17-year-old in a T-shirt saying “FBI Anti-Terrorism Unit.”

“If they come back, they'll get stoned.”

The unrest was touched off by the electrocution of teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore in a power substation in this northeastern suburb where they were hiding from police. In the minds of young people here, it was fear of police that drove Zyed and Bouna to their deaths.

There is no memorial at the electricity station, just the graffiti and rubble that are the signature of housing projects like Clichy-sous-Bois.

Zyed's father, Amor Benna, a Muslim born in Tunisia, buried his 17-year-old son in his North African homeland. He ascribes the death to a destiny “written when he was born.”

Now he wonders whether the loss of his son can help set right a nation which prides itself as a beacon of liberty, equality and fraternity but failed to extend these principles to a suburban underclass with a dual culture and names that don't ring French.

Zyed, who works as a sewer cleaner, is cautiously hopeful that his tragedy can ultimately lead to good. “I see people who say it woke up France, so it must have served for something.”

“Things are moving a little bit,” he said. Then he corrected himself. “No, let's say things are moving a tiny bit.”