Saturday 26 December 2009

A Top 12 of the Noughties in Paris, Part Seven

The Burning Suburbs (2005)
When I first moved to Paris, I lived in a small town in the infamous ‘neuf trois’ (Seine Saint Denis department) in the eastern suburbs. It was a quiet place, a sleepy dormitory town in the commuter belt with very little of interest. What became immediately obvious to me though was how much it was cut away from Paris. Those who didn’t work in the city almost never went there, and Parisians certainly didn’t bother to visit the town. They may as well have been 500km apart.

It is one of the curiousities of France. Go to almost any town or city and you will find an attractive and relatively affluent centre. In the countryside around these urban centres, you will find unlimited beauty and fertile agriculture. Between the two though is a no-mans land. 2005 was the year that the French discovered this territory, and it wasn’t pretty.

It began in Clichy Sous Bois in the suburbs of Paris on the 27th October. That evening, a banal game of cat and mouse between the police and local teenagers turned into a local tragedy when two of the young men were electrocuted in an electricity sub-station. The town was already a single spark away from an explosion and this event proved to be the struck match. There was a feeling that the police had forced the boys in that direction and had done nothing to assist them when they became stuck inside. That night, local gangs took to the streets and hundreds of cars were set on fire.

Such events are comparatively common in France, but this time there was something different. A few weeks previously, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was Home Secretary at the time, had promised to clean up the suburbs with a Karcher power hose. It was an aggressive stance that made the inhabitants of these zones feel even more stigmatised and isolated, and they were angry. The violence quickly spread across the Paris suburbs and out into similar zones in the rest of France.

The troubles eventually lasted three weeks, with thousands of cars and buildings set on fire across France. It was the worst violence seen in the country since 1968, but completely different in its form. Whereas the students and young intellectuals in 1968 had set barricades in the very heart of French society, here the disaffected youth were setting fire to their own surroundings.

For most French people it existed purely as a television event. It was a world of darkness and flames, masked youths and police officers in protective clothing. It was happening just a few kilometers from Paris, but it was another country.

In the end, this blind violence of frustration eventually burned itself out, but the embers are still warm. Nothing has changed in the suburbs where unemployment levels amongst the young sometimes reach 40%. People are still excluded from the jobs market simply because of their address or their surname, and a lack of transport and amenities still isolates this population away from the rest of the country. We can only hope that no more matches are lit before changes are finally made.


Owen said...

Indeed, indeed... but what is cause for concern is that there doesn't seem to be much change happening of any sort where the suburbs are concerned. The Karcher treatment didn't materialize, and nothing else did either, so we are left with cities that are no man's lands, controlled by hoodlums, where even the police don't like to go. And not just Paris suburbs. In the town of Nogent sur Oise there's a "cité" called "la Capitainerie", where for sport certain residents toss refrigerators from the fifth floor onto the firemen who come to put out the dumpster fires. There are some real problems alright in "la belle France", but precious few answers on the horizon...

PeterParis said...

Yes, the problem is still there! No easy solutions and I don't have any! What I of course regret is the way of building these impossible living quarters in the 60's and 70's, places where nobody would like to live, if they had a choice.

... of course, what happened was a disaster, but the Fox News once more overdid the thing!

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