The angry sound of the suburbs

The alienation that sends young French whites to the Right is driving North Africans into extremism, writes Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Online
Strasbourg is known as one of France's richest and best-run cities. Its formidable Socialist mayor, Catherine Trautmann, has strongly liberal views on social policy and race relations. In a national political climate that favoured the right and a region where the extreme right National Front is strong, she was re-elected in June with an increased majority.

But for the past 10 days, this model city of Europe, as it likes to present itself, has been in something akin to a state of urban warfare. The estates are thick with police. As of Monday, troops in fatigues, with automatics over their shoulders, have been patrolling the city's fairy-tale cobbled streets. Sixty of them have been detailed for the surveillance of buses and, most poignantly, the sleek green trams that are Mme Trautmann's pride and joy.

For her, the tramway project, which she saw through to conclusion during her first term of office, was to be not just a lifeline for the housing estates, where car ownership is low and the bus services poor to non-existent, not just a passport to jobs for the up to 50 per cent of estate dwellers who were unemployed, but a means of reducing the cultural and psychological distance between the estates and the city.

At the weekend, though, in an attack which represented "two fingers up" to Mme Trautmann's hopes for better social integration in Strasbourg, one of her sleek green trams was fire-bombed. It was a primitive attack: a couple of kids threw a beer can filled with petrol into the vehicle as the doors opened and set it alight. Damage was not heavy, and there were no injuries.

But the attack was a warning: even in a prosperous city like Strasbourg, where the local authorities have made exceptional efforts and the outlying estates are mostly better built and better kept than elsewhere in France, the temperature on the estates has reached boiling point and the city had better take heed.

The firebomb in the tram, of course, had a history, and it was the history of almost any of French city's benighted banlieues - a word which French purists still say means "the suburbs", but has come to be synonymous with Britain's "inner city" - except that the city is often far away.

Like Britain's inner cities, the banlieues are usually concrete landscapes, conceived as improved housing for urban slum dwellers, that manage to be both sprawling and crowded at the same time. They have a high concentration of first and second generation immigrants, Turks (in Strasbourg) and North Africans (elsewhere); a high ratio of young people, and not enough - if anything - for them to do.

The disturbances on the Strasbourg estates began with a surge in petty crime, arson attacks, joyriding, police chases, complaints of police oppression. But there was an additional factor: long-standing tensions have recently been augmented by intensified and deliberately high-profile police activity required under the national anti-terrorist plan, known as Vigipirate: last week, the eighth bomb in a wave of attacks exploded on an underground commuter train near the Foreign Ministry at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. Because the wave of bombings in Paris and elsewhere were believed early on to have a North African and Muslim connection, it was the young, "brown" population the police had in their sights.

In public discussion of the Strasbourg troubles, this aspect has been kept at arm's length. But one young, very light-brown, Strasbourg banlieusard was utterly clear: in a television interview that went, perhaps significantly, without comment, he said: "I'm fed up of being picked on. Every time I go out, I get stopped at every turn. We can't do anything ...."

With disturbances reported in one or other difficult banlieue almost every day now, the French equivalent of the Police Federation has already warned the government that Vigipirate could make the banlieues unpoliceable once the terrorist threat is over.

French sociologists have for some time been focusing on the banlieues, but their studies have tended to fix on a phenomenon they call "exclusion", a general sort of marginalisation from the social mainstream, rather than on race, culture and the banlieues as such.

This was starting to change even before this summer's bomb attacks. With a series of films, including the Cannes prize-winner, La Haine - "The Hate" - devoted to it, the separateness of the banlieue was suddenly a fashionable subject. The government was said to be so worried by the distance opened up between city and banlieue that the prime minister, Alain Juppe, held a special showing of La Haine for the whole Cabinet - and instructed them to attend.

The first bomb attacks, in July and August, the Wanted notices featuring young brown faces, and then, three weeks ago, the pursuit and eventual shooting of the Algerian-born terrorist suspect Khaled Kelkal through the estates of Lyons and Grenoble, inevitably focused attention on race and culture. To the phenomenon of the banlieue had been added the elements of French colonial history and Islam, and so flammable is the mix seen to be that its long-term implications are still only tentatively broached.

Certainly, the division between the cities and the banlieues is a gulf that seems much wider in France than in much of Britain, where housing estates are inside cities as well as on their edge. In big French cities such as Paris and Lyons, it is possible for the city-dwellers never to have anything to do with the banlieues or those who live in them, and vice versa. There is a "comfortable France" and an "uncomfortable France" and the paths of the two need never cross.

Built on what were often greenfield sites, and perversely carrying names that often recall the woods and fields that were once there, the cities without cities are worlds of their own. There is dereliction and evidence of vandalism everywhere that seems the more scandalous because the inner areas of most French towns are so clean and spruce. And there is nothing to do. In good weather, groups of young men hang around, talking and fooling in their incomprehensible argot; in bad weather they crowd the one or two dingy cafes, where the smoke hangs heavy.

On many estates, it is the browns - first, second or third generation North Africans mostly - who are in the majority. Increasingly, they are seen by the "other" France as a threat. Courtesy of local mosques and satellite television beamed in from North Africa and Saudi Arabia, they can live entirely in their own Muslim world. On such estates, the dish aerials tied to almost every balcony are, to many native-born French people and integrated immigrants, a hated and menacing symbol of otherness.

The chairman of the French broadcasting commission recently let slip a telling indication of the gap. Alluding (critically) to the fact that Kelkal's killing had been shown on television, Herve Bourges said: "You have to remember that it was not only our compatriots who were watching television that evening, but young people from the banlieue as well." There, encapsulated, were the two Frances, as seen from the city.

From the estates, however, the view seems equally alien and threatening. This was one of the strongest impressions to emerge from an extensive interview conducted by a German sociologist Dietmar Loch with Khaled Kelkal three years ago and published by the French newspaper le Monde two weeks after his death.

The interview offers a portrait of a "lost" generation: their parents came to France, strove to be French and found themselves parked in the banlieue. They themselves grew up witnessing their parents' failure and seek self-respect by a different route.

Of the city of Lyons, barely 30km away from the string of estates known as Vaulx-en-Velin where he grew up, Kelkal says: "There is a huge difference ... there's a great wall, an enormous wall...."

When he speaks about his later schooling, at a prestige lycee in Lyons, or his sorties into the city, his answers are peppered with the phrase, "I didn't feel right", "I didn't feel comfortable".

Constantly, he feels stranded between the Algerian world of his parents and the French world of the city; he could assimilate, but refuses: "I had the capacity to succeed, but I couldn't find my place, because that would have meant total integration. But that's impossible, I can't forget my culture, eat pork...."

At each stage of his short life, Kelkal seemed to experience one crucial setback that pushed him one step further away from French society. He won a place at the lycee - but it wasn't his first choice; that place went to "a French girl who was not as bright as me". He was sent to prison after his "mate" had shopped him to the police; the police, he said, made out he had been difficult to find; the judge, he felt, was against all browns.

If only, runs his refrain, I could have got a job. But he insisted on something in his school speciality, chemistry, and it had to be permanent. Perhaps if he had stayed at school ... but even those with diplomas on the estate couldn't find jobs, so "what use is a diploma?"

With a stable and hitherto supportive family unhappy about having a delinquent son as one of their 10 children, the only people who provided a social, cultural and even ethical framework (staunchly anti-drugs, anti-crime) were associated with the mosque. In prison, Kelkal had learnt Arabic and converted to the religion he had acquired passively. Whatever the truth of his final months, he was, even in 1992, well primed to serve an Islamic cause.

In France, opinions differ about how far Kelkal's story is banal and how far it is exceptional. But the factors of "otherness" which pushed him away from the French mainstream apply to very many second-generation North Africans. The widespread reluctance to recognise this, even after the bombings, may derive partly from fear of the implications. There are five to six million people in France of North African origin, very many of them living in the banlieue, more than 40 per cent of them under 25; large numbers unemployed.

A similar argument is applied to Strasbourg: that the Alsace is an exception - in its huge disparity between rich and poor, in the Germanic component of its culture, in its history. A reason often cited for the strength of the extreme right National Front there is the sharp contrast between the appearance, traditions and cultural comportment of the immigrant population and that of the staid, Teutonic natives.

Others would argue that in these contrasts, Strasbourg is not really exceptional, only perhaps a little ahead of the rest of France. And events of recent weeks have furnished ample evidence of a disturbing fact: that the contrasts and pressures which push young jobless whites towards the National Front have been pushing the young jobless brown population towards Islam.

Unless something quite drastic in the way of employment and integration policies is undertaken urgently, the banlieues seem to be heading in the long-term for ghettoisation or war. The French government's proposed "Marshall Plan for the banlieues" seems the very least that can be done.

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