Fence divides a town and a nation

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Nicknamed the "iron curtain" or the "wall of shame", a green metal fence separating two communities in northern France has caused a furious debate and called into question the country's commitment to equality (égalité.)

Nicknamed the "iron curtain" or the "wall of shame", a green metal fence separating two communities in northern France has caused a furious debate and called into question the country's commitment to equality (égalité.)

The barrier has become both a practical obstruction and a symbol of class divisions. It is two metres high and blockades a street used as a shortcut between Douai and its slightly leafier and wealthier neighbour, Cuincy. Affronted residents on the wrong side of the tracks complain of prejudice and are calling the area "Alcatraz".

The fence, 30 metres long, was put up by the municipality of Cuincy, a town of fewer than 7,000 people and one that itself is hardly a magnet for the nation's millionaires. Most people there work for the biggest employers, Nestlé and Renault.

They have long complained about the neighbouring council estate, which, they claim, is a hotbed of drug-dealing and bad behaviour.

Although relations between the two communities had been strained, few in Douai seem to have expected the scale of the reaction from Cuincy. When, on 31 July, workers arrived, some of those in the council housing on the rue des Cytises thought the town hall was doing them a favour by putting in huge tubs of flowers.

Instead, they found themselves having to make a detour of up to a mile to visit the shops, reach the bus stop or go to the doctor. Cuincy-dwellers, too, have been inconvenienced by the fence, which blocks the route to one local cemetery.

Now disabused, the Douai residents have stirred up a storm of protest, circulating a petition demanding the removal of the fence, and provoking front-page headlines in the French press.

"They've ghettoised us," one resident, Yvelise Chatel, told French TV. "They've herded us in with an attitude that says, 'You stay there and we stay here, everyone stays in their own place'." Jacques Vernier, the mayor of Douai, described the decision to install the fence as "grotesque", arguing that there was no significant crime problem in the area.

Complaints of social apartheid have struck a chord in France, where insecurity and rising crime were central issues in this year's elections, leaving politicians searching desperately for solutions.

Bernard Wagon, the socialist mayor of Cuincy, went on the defensive and argued that his side had "tried everything that we could to solve the problem" of drug-dealing, car noise and "all sorts of incivilities". He has now offered an olive branch. Provided there is agreement within the area, Cuincy plans to fit a door that will open up its iron curtain – but only between 6am and 8pm.

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