John Lichfield: Enfants terribles and their twins

Notebook
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Take two tribes which live six miles apart. They are, in theory, part of the same monolithic culture.

Each holds strong, and often lurid, prejudices or assumptions about the other. Some of the assumptions are true. Many are false. Last week the two tribes met for the first time, with surprising results. We are talking not of the Amazon jungle but of two tribes of French teenagers, a banlieue tribe and a "bourgeois" tribe.

Our first tribe comes from outside the périphérique, the orbital motorway which, like an ancient city wall, separates the city of Paris from the outer darkness beyond (which is how most people within the "wall" view the multi-racial banlieues or suburbs).

Our banlieue tribe are 70 per cent of African origin, with most of the rest being second generation North African or Lebanese or Asian or eastern European. A handful are French. They are studying for the baccaulaureate at a lycée just north of the Paris city boundary. To have got this far with their schooling means that they are the academic elite of their area. Their ambition, if they have any, is simply to pass the "bac". They are very similar in age, feisty attitudes and racial backgrounds to the teenagers in the French movie Entre les Murs (The Class), which won acclaim and prizes all over the world in 2008.

The second tribe lives and goes to school in one of the most comfortable parts of a mostly comfortable, and very beautiful, city. Their lycée is among the most academically successful in France. The ambition of most pupils is to go to the elite Grandes Ecoles, which are the training ground for the French ruling classes. Nearly all are of French origin. The only exception is my daughter, Clare, who is of Irish and British origin.

The two classes of 16- and 17-year-olds, both about 30 strong, have been twinned at the initiative of two teachers who have taught in both schools. The first time that they "met" was at a joint expedition to a classical French drama at a Paris theatre. The banlieue kids, suspecting that they were being patronised, made an exhibition of themselves by shouting and joking throughout the performance. The second meeting was cancelled. The banlieue school was on strike.

Finally last week the two tribes met. The bourgeois girls were astonished to find how handsome the black boys were. "They all looked liked film stars or footballers," reported my daughter. The brown and black banlieue girls (at least those who spoke to Clare) were astonished at how handsome some of the bourgeois boys were. The white boys in the banlieue class all looked like one footballer, Wayne Rooney.

The bourgeois kids were surprised to find that the banlieue kids could speak in clear, fluent French, and not just the verlan or patois of the suburbs, composed of Arabic, African and English words and French reversing slang. The banlieue girls spoke out more confidently than the banlieue boys, who preferred to make sniping, often funny comments from the background. The bourgeois boys were more confident than the bourgeois girls.

Each group had been asked to prepare short statements of their assumptions and expectations about the other. The banlieue kids said that they assumed that the bourgeois kids all had names like Jean-Baptiste or Leopoldine (largely true); that they had rich, powerful mamans et papas who would guarantee them successful lives (no longer true); that they played tennis and golf and bridge and rode horses (true for some).

The bourgeois kids said that they assumed that the suburban kids wore "nothing but sports clothes" and that their school was flooded with guns, knives and drugs. "Oh no," interjected a banlieue boy. "That's only in college (ie middle school for 11-15 year olds)".

A banlieue girl said: "Things in the banlieues are not what you imagine. You think we are crawling round on all fours all day in case we get shot. Mais non! There are children playing, birds singing."

The two groups, in the end, got on well.They are to meet regularly and prepare the oral parts of the "bac" together. Clare said that she "learned a lot".

She and her friends were impressed bythe intelligence, fluency and warmth of the kids from the suburbs. They were shockedby their pessimism and by their lack of ambition. All seemed to believe that they had no chance of succeeding or even finding a reasonable job, whether they worked hard and passed the "bac" or not. The expectation in her school is that everyone will succeed, she said.The expectation amongst the banlieue kidsis failure.

So, all in all, a welcome, and rare, experiment in fraternité. Egalité may be a long way off.

Healing properties of fizz

Here's a way to cure the flu and have fun at the same time, from the French health websiteTop Santé. The recipe comes from Dr Henri Puget, author of a book on home remedies (Remèdes de Famille). Pour a glass of champagne into a saucepan. Add two teaspoons of sugar. Heat until it bubbles. Wait until cool. Drink and go to bed. You will, the doctor says, sweat like a pig but you will wake up feeling much better (even rather bubbly).

Miss Glou-Glou, Le Monde's jolly food blogger, suggests a comforting variant: drink the champagne and sugar potion still warm with a touch of lemon. No other wine will do, apparently, and certainly not a cheap sparkling wine from some other benighted country or region. There are, the doctor insists, medicinal qualities in champagne.

Comments