Fiddling after Paris Burned; A Month after Widespread Riots, France's Efforts to Address the 'Root Causes' of the Unrest Are Looking More and More like Purely Cosmetic Changes
Pape, Eric, Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek International
Byline: Eric Pape and Christopher Dickey
Kids in football uniforms run laps around a lit field in the early December twilight. They are specks in a vast cityscape of massive gray housing projects on the far fringe of the Paris sprawl. "Don't cut corners!" their coach calls out, breath steaming in the frost and his voice harsh amid the neighborhood's silence. Parents peek out from the high-rise windows as the kids start their game. The largely immigrant ghetto of Montfermeil is anything but heaven, but it doesn't feel like hell, either.
Hell was last month, when riots convulsed this and so many other outer-city ghettos across France. Beginning in nearby Clichy-sous-Bois, the violence raged for three full weeks: 10,000 cars and more than 200 buildings were burned, including schools, day-care centers, gymnasiums and small businesses. Thousands of people were detained, more than 400 were jailed, hundreds of others were injured--among them 234 cops and firefighters. The fate of some of France's leading politicians seemed to be at stake, perhaps the future of France itself.
For now, at least, the fires have died out--but an acrid bitterness still hangs in the air. Ask those on the football pitch behind the high wire fences of Montfermeil. Year after year, coach Kaddor Slimane, a son of Algerian immigrants who grew up in neighboring projects, has seen his teams win their league's sportsmanship award. Yet what does their good behavior mean in the "outside" world, where they are seen through the lens of limitations and stereotypes? "The French are racist," he says. "They just don't want to admit it." Life in the projects isn't so bad when you are a child, says Amad, a 24-year-old community activist who declined to give his last name for fear of racist attacks. "But once you reach a certain age, you're fed up. There's nothing to do except play soccer or hang out," in voiceless exile from the "other" France.
The politicians whose inaction and confusion (and seeming indifference) contributed to the violence, on the other hand, have rediscovered their voices. Almost as if the riots never happened, many are once again speaking in familiar platitudes and posturing about law and order. "All those who participated in the riots will have to pay, today or tomorrow," France's Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy declared on Dec. 15 at an homage to injured police and firefighters. Then he waded into the crowd, alongside his political rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, for handshakes and photos.
For a brief moment, in the immediate aftermath of the riots, genuine change seemed possible. As if to make up for lost decades, French officials rushed to propose new initiatives designed to address "root causes" of the unrest. The government is stepping up plans to knock down the soulless housing blocks that make life in France's banlieues so oppressive and alienating, and to replace them with smaller-scale housing surrounded by greenery. It injected an additional 100 million euros into the 2006 budget for social-support organizations in troubled communities. And it promised, yet again, to focus laserlike on unemployment, which ranges from 20 to 40 percent in many ghetto communities--two to four times the national average.
That's just for starters. Another program will offer 70,000 young outer-city adults free job counseling, internships and employment opportunities by the end of February. The number of education grants to be awarded to ghetto kids will jump from 30,000 to 100,000 in 2006, while elite French schools, according to official assurances, will begin taking in more students of color. …