Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

FRANCE: Two Years After Riots, Little Has Changed

Michael Deibert

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, Sep 24 2007 (IPS) - The community in this Paris suburb is waiting keenly for transformation promised by France&#39s new government.

Clichy-sous-Bois gained an unwelcome iconic significance two years ago following the deaths of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, two youths from immigrant families who were electrocuted while trying to hide from the police.

The deaths, a particularly grim chapter in a long history of simmering tension between local youths and the police, set off rioting and civil unrest around France. Almost 9,000 cars were burnt, and dozens of buildings were set on fire. Close to 130 police and firefighter staff were injured, and nearly 2,900 people were arrested.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of interior, promised to rid the banlieues, as the impoverished suburbs that ring many French cities are known, of racaille (rabble), and clean them out with a kärcher (a high-pressure hose). Residents now ask if he will be equally vehement about addressing the chronic unemployment and prejudice that they say were at the root of the upheaval.

During his campaign for presidency, Sarkzoy&#39s tough language on crime in the banlieues, combined with at times strident anti-immigrant rhetoric, earned him the enmity of some residents. Though the banlieues are home to many immigrants and their families, most youths who took part in the 2005 unrest were culturally and socially French.

But since taking office in June, Sarkozy has created one of the most ethnically diverse governments that France has seen. His 15-member cabinet includes seven women and many immigrants or their descendants.

Rachida Dati, daughter of a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother, raised in humble circumstances in the Chalon-sur-Saone town in the Burgundy region, was appointed minister of justice in the government of Sarkozy&#39s Prime Minister, François Fillon.

Secretary of State for Urban Policies, Fadéla Amara, is of Algerian descent. She grew up in an impoverished immigrant quarter in the Auvergne city of Clermont-Ferrand. Before joining the government, Amara was president of the feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives).

Amara is in charge of drafting reforms that will address the joblessness and discrimination that many see as the root of the current malaise. The government has announced its intention of conducting more than 100 public meetings on subjects concerning the suburbs. Sarkozy has outlined a plan to address the inequity at a December event at an as-yet-unnamed banlieue.

So far, little has changed.

"The problems are just the same," says Mehdi Bigaderne, spokesperson for the Association Collectif Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Ensemble (ACLEFEU), a community organisation formed in the wake of the 2005 unrest, and whose name is a pun on the phrase &#39enough fire&#39.

"We see the same comportment of the police, the same discrimination, nothing has changed. The relations between the police and the citizens continue to be very, very negative. The big questions – the question of work, the question of housing, the question of discrimination – are still with us."

Following the 2005 "social eruption", as it is referred to in the suburbs, the government of former president Jacques Chirac appeared to lapse into somnolence as soon as the smoke from the disturbances had cleared.

Few steps were taken to address the fact that, in some suburbs, unemployment hovers around nearly 20 percent – double the national average. The figure for 21-29-year-olds stands at more than 30 percent.

A study conducted in 2004 by sociologist Jean-François Amadieu and Adia, one of the largest human resource and temporary job companies in Paris, found that job applicants with a traditionally French sounding surname or a more desirable address code were five times more likely to be called in for a job interview than a prospective employee with an Arab or African-appearing name or an address in the suburbs.

France&#39s economically deprived suburbs are bleak and depressing. Block after block of grey high-rises stretch on into the distance, and minimal services such as shops and restaurants are on hand.

In districts like Clichy-sous-Bois, the sense of isolation is also a product of a skeletal transportation system. A single bus route links Clichy-sous-Bois, about ten miles from the centre of Paris, to the train station in the more affluent town Le Raincy nearby.

But despite a more ethnically diverse government, flashes of tension appear between the new government&#39s stated desire for social inclusion and the law-and-order and occasionally anti-immigrant rhetoric that helped elect it.

Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Secretary Rama Yade, a 30-year-old immigrant from Senegal who is widely viewed as a Sarkozy protégé, received a brisk reprimand from Prime Minister Fillon following her visit to mostly immigrant squatters who had been evicted from their dwellings in the Aubervilliers suburb.

An apparently piqued Fillon told a cabinet meeting that members of the government needed to "coordinate" their decisions so as not to "interfere" with the justice system.

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