October 13, 2015


The Other France : Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism? (GEORGE PACKER, 8/31/15, The New Yorker)

For all their vitality, the banlieues feel isolated from the city, and from France itself. Parisians and tourists rarely visit them, and residents complain that journalists drop in only to report on car burnings and drug shootings. The suburb Clichy-sous-Bois--the scene, in 2005, of youth riots that spread across the country--has tried to raise revenue by offering a tour de banlieue for curious outsiders. Many suburban residents, meanwhile, never even think of going to Paris. Compared with American slums, the banlieues have relatively decent standards of housing and safety, but the psychological distance between the 93 and the Champs-Elysées can feel insuperable--much greater than that between the Bronx and Times Square. The apartment blocks in the cités, often arranged around a pharmacy, a convenience store, and a fast-food joint, look inward. Many have no street addresses, obvious points of entry, or places to park. The sense of separation is heightened by the names of the surrounding streets and schools, preserved from a historical France that has little connection to residents' lives. The roads around Gros Saule--a drug-ridden cité where the police dare not enter--include Rue Henri Matisse and Rue Claude Debussy.

"It's a social frontier," Badroudine Abdallah, Mehdi Meklat's colleague at Bondy Blog, said. "It's not just about being black or Arab. It's also about having relationships at your disposal, a network." Meklat and Abdallah, who are in their twenties, told me about weeklong internships required of French ninth graders. Most of their classmates ended up in lousy little bakeries or pharmacies, or with nothing, because corporations wouldn't answer queries from the children of immigrants in the 93.

Being from the banlieues is a serious impediment to employability, and nearly every resident I met had a story about discrimination. Fanta Ba, the daughter of Senegalese immigrants, has taken to sending out job applications using her middle name, France, and Frenchifying her last name to Bas, but she remains out of work. Whenever she hears of a terrorist attack in France, she prays, "Don't let it be an Arab, a black, a Muslim." On January 7th, she turned off the TV and avoided Facebook for two days. She couldn't bear to rewatch the violent images or hear that all Muslims bore some responsibility. "To have to say, 'I am Charlie' or 'I am a Muslim and I condemn this'--it's too much," she said. "It wasn't me. I asked myself, 'How will this end? Are they going to put crosses on the apartment doors of Muslims or Arabs?' "

Ben Ahmed has a friend from Bobigny named Brahim Aniba, an accountant who, like many banlieue residents, once endured a period of unemployment. To receive state benefits, he had to meet with a job counsellor. Aniba told me that the counsellor, wanting to help, said, "You don't have an aunt who lives in Paris or somewhere else? Because Bobigny--really? Cité Grémillon?" This was the French equivalent of Sh[***]ville. The counsellor advised, "If you have an address in Paris, a post-office box, just to receive mail, it's better. And then the family name, Aniba--it's O.K., but the first name, Brahim, use 'B.' "

"Madame, why don't I just drop my pants instead?" Aniba said.

Simply defining who is French can make small talk tricky. When people ask Widad Ketfi, a thirty-year-old journalist, where she's from, she replies, "Bondy," but that never ends the conversation. "Of what origin?" "French." "Where are your parents from?" "France!" Even citizens of immigrant descent often identify whites with the term Français de souche--"French from the roots." The implication is that people with darker skin are not fully French.

Posted by at October 13, 2015 7:21 PM

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