France's two worlds

KA Dilday
7 May 2007

The election of Nicolas Sarkozy is a sign of France’s divisions, its fears, its conservatism, and yet its hunger for change. KA Dilday measures a complex moment.

There is a particular type of French boy who irks me. I don't often see him in my own neighbourhood on the edge of what is sometimes called Paris's "little Africa", a bustling mix of Maghrebis and sub-Saharan Africans. This boy has paler skin than that crowd. I usually see this boy on the left bank, in the 7th arrondissement. He can be between 15 and 18. He is lean and has longish carefully tousled hair (occasionally one catches him in the act of tousling). His cheeks are pink. He's usually in a group with others like him, or occasionally he is walking with his father or in a group. He wears a sport jacket and an untucked collared shirt, and his hands are thrust deeply into his pockets.

He looks pleased. And he should be. His good life is mapped out. He's probably finished lycée (secondary school) and is on the kind of postgraduate programme that prestigious lycées like Henri IV offer. For two years or so he will study in a programme that offers no degree, preparing to take the exams that allow him entry into a grand ècole, the elite French higher-education institutions that ensure that his life will be as secure and well-compensated as his father's.

I saw a lot of those boys at the Place de la Concord on Sunday evening, 6 May 2007, where the supporters of the president-elect, Nicolas Sarkozy, were celebrating victory in the presidential election.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she travels between North Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail"
(4 August 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question"
(26 October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice"
(8 December 2005)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(16 February 2006)

"The labour of others"
(6 April 2006)

"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (14 June 2006)

"Zidane and France: the rules of the game"
(19 July 2006)

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"
(5 February 2007)

"Iraqis adrift"
(19 February 2007)

"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel"
(6 March 2007)

"The Darfur conundrum" (3 April 2007)

"The discomfort of strangers"
(24 April 2007)

But I also saw another type of boy, more a young man since his group was a bit older. Their skin is darker and their hair is too wiry and stiff to tousle. Although these young men had been born in France, their parents had likely been born in some part of Africa. Many of them are unemployed, or in a short-term job. These young men will have left school much earlier than their pink-cheeked counterparts, and if they have a baccalaureat at all it is likely to be a professional or technical one rather than the more prestigious, scientific one from a general lycée. These darker boys probably have at most a "Bac+2", a high-school degree plus two years of training at a university far lower in the social scale than a grand ècole.

At the Place de la Concord, I spoke to some of these boys, all of whom were from neighbourhoods outside of Paris. Most had voted for Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy's Parti Socialiste opponent. They all proudly told me they had voted; one even took out his card to prove to me that he had cast his vote in both the first and second rounds. They were at Place de la Concorde for the party, no doubt - which went on all night, a cacophony of bad French music by ageing rock stars and triumphant speeches - but they insisted that they were also there because: "This is France", "It is our future."

A heart grown bitter

In the banlieues (the term people usually use to describe the poor French suburbs, although the word simply means suburb) young men like the ones I spoke to at the Place de la Concorde say they hate Sarkozy. They are in a war with the police and they see him as the top cop, which he was as minister of the interior, the position he held until March 2007 when he resigned to focus on his presidential campaign. In France, the police have the right to stop anyone and ask to see their identity papers, which all people in France are required to carry.

Carrying an identity card is something new for me since it isn't required in the United States. Living in France for more than a year, I've never been asked to show mine. Yet a black male English friend who lived in Paris fifteen years ago told me that a day didn't go by when he wasn't asked to show his papers. It got so bad, he said, that every time he saw a policeman, he would start to feel tense and ill.

The beur youth have grown up in a country where the police have the right to this sort of intrusion. It doesn't give them stomach-aches. But in the banlieues, these young men have told me that in recent years, they are asked to show their papers not only every day, but several times a day. Under Sarkozy, the young men say, the stops grew more frequent; the police became ruder, using the familiar tu form rather than the more polite vous form to address them.

To some, this might seem to be only a minor inconvenience, but what the police are saying to them is: "You don't look French", or "You look like a criminal", and "Prove your right to be in this country". It is an instant critique of their person, one that has a powerful negative psychological effect on the young black and brown men in France (girls do not draw the same attention). In essence these boys and young men are excluded from the idea of the citizenry by those charged with protecting it.

In 2005 during an appearance in Argenteuil, one of these banlieues, Sarkozy was heckled and pelted with bottles. His notorious temper kicked in and he angrily retorted that he was going to clean the racaille (rabble) out of the banlieues. Two days later, on 27 October 2005, in the nearby suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, the police chased three boys, who clambered into a power generator to escape (no one has ever said that the boys, who were returning from football practice, were themselves suspects). The boys were electrocuted and two died. The police lied about what had happened, saying they had not pursued the boys and did not know where they had run to hide.

Whether the interior department knew they were lying or not, it protected them. Only a year later, after an official investigation by a judge, did the true version of events emerge. The interior ministry had to concede that not only had the boys been chased, knowing they were in a dangerous situation, the officers left them there. The incident touched off three weeks of riots in the banlieues: cars were burned, businesses were destroyed, and one person was killed. On the anniversary of the boys' deaths, youth in the banlieues set traps for the police, luring them to the cités (the large housing projects) in the banlieues where they encircled and attacked police cars.

Clichy-sous-Bois is in Seine St Denis, a poor department of France. Clichy isn't geographically far from Paris, but it is a complicated journey leading to a sense of isolation. One must take a train and then a long bus ride to reach the cluster of concrete high-rises at its centre. At tense times the police wait at the train stations in neighbourhoods like Clichy to prevent the "unwanted" from breaching Parisian borders. Clichy has a high crime-rate yet does not have its own police station. In the televised debate between Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal on 2 May she reminded him that his interior ministry had never opened a much promised police bureau in Clichy-sous-Bois.

On the day after the election, there is great disappointment in these suburbs among those who view Sarkozy as their enemy. But there is also hope. There are those who think Sarkozy is a man of action and that there has been little of that in France. A fellow journalist and I sat down and tried to name significant accomplishments of outgoing President Jacques Chirac's twelve-year administration. We came up with: opposition to the war in Iraq, banning smoking in public buildings, the "Africa tax" on plane tickets.

By contrast, Chirac's administration backed down from the contrat première embauche ("first employment contract" / CPE), the job law that was designed to make it attractive for employers to give immigrant youth under 26 years old easier access to the job market; riotous protests by university students (who were unlikely to be affected by it) killed the measure. It was one symptom of France's social divisions that Sarkozy, with his talk about reforming employment laws, claims to want to overcome. But the many unemployed beur youth know that when jobs are scarce as they have been for the past two decades, those ironclad work contracts the French are so reluctant to give up usually go to the pink-cheeked tousled haired boy, not to them.

The suburbs wait

Sarkozy broaches subjects like religion and race that are taboo in French law, but omnipresent factors in French culture. He helped establish the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Council of the Muslim Faith / CFCM) in 2003 to provide Muslims with the same sort of direct line to the government that Catholics and Jews, the two other large religious groups in France, have had for many years. At the moment, the CFCM is a largely ineffectual organisation wracked by internecine struggles but in time it may be a force. He has discussed positive discrimination, something the socialists are set against as it goes against the ideal of a religion-and-race-blind republic.

Sarkozy succeeded in pushing through a bill that prevents people who enter the country illegally from using their time served to obtain citizenship. He also aggressively expelled people without the legal right to be in France. (Though during the period of socialist government in the 1980s, "clandestines" had no more rights, an aid worker in the French immigrant community told me: the government dealt with them by ignoring them, a sort of "don't ask, don't tell policy" that offered no protection). Sarkozy favors an immigration of choice rather than the family reunification policies that had been in place in France. Patrick Weil, a left-leaning immigration specialist admitted that he agreed. France's new methods and rate of accepting immigrants is a good one, he said. What Weil objected to was the rude and insulting way Sarkozy and others in the Chirac administration presented their policies.

It's clear that France needs to change. During the campaign, it was clear that Sarkozy was far more willing to acknowledge that than his socialist counterpart.

The election has mattered to French people. It had a record turnout of 83.97% among registered voters. I was in Aubervilliers, a poor suburb home to many immigrants, thirty minutes before the polls closed at 8pm. People were still coming in to vote even though by then some news organisations were already reporting Sarkozy's victory.

The boys from the banlieues will be watching now, tense and tightly wound, knowing that Sarkozy's victory means change, wondering just what type of change it might be. The tousled-haired boys aren't terribly concerned. Whatever happens they know that it has little chance of disturbing the inevitability of their good life.

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