French outsiders bewail 'bad life in the suburbs'


MANTES-LA-JOLIE, France -- The view from the neighborhoo known as Val-Fourre is splendidly rural. Lush green hills rise to the north, dotted with tiny villages of summer homes and Gothic churches.

But the people of Val-Fourre don't spend much time admiring the view.

Their world is a harsh, drab place of concrete and graffiti, of swirling dust, broken glass and an overwhelming crush of people.

They live in the largest public housing project in France, located in Mantes-la-Jolie, a suburb 30 miles west of Paris.

In Val-Fourre, 28,000 human beings, most with roots in Arab North Africa or black West Africa, are crammed into half a square mile of real estate dominated by stark gray apartment towers 22 stories high.

This is a ghetto, French-style. This is where France stores much of its growing racial underclass. This is where dark-skinned people with accents live their lives, out of sight and, for millions of French, out of mind.

This is the symbol of France's most worrying domestic problem -- the sense of alienation and lack of opportunity felt by those trapped on the fringes of French life.

Those problems are summed up by a catch phrase that would make little sense in any other country: Le mal vivre des banlieues. Roughly translated, it means, "the bad life in the suburbs."

Many of these ghetto dwellers came to this country in the 1960s, imported from France's colonies to work in factories. Now their children are coming of age. And those children, French citizens by birth, are finding it hard to get work, harder still to feel accepted in the only country they have ever known.

Their frustration and anger have burst into rage in recent weeks. The last week in May, several hundred young people spent two nights ransacking the local shopping center, torching trucks, skirmishing with police and throwing Molotov cocktails at the city hall annex. One 18-year-old, a second-generation Moroccan, died police custody.

On June 9, a second-generation Algerian riding in one of several stolen cars was shot and killed by police after one of those cars rammed through a barricade, killing a policewoman. The Algerian was 23.

And nearly every day, the young people, bored and restless, hang out in front of the local activity center, its boarded-up main entrance a reminder that some angry young person drove a stolen car into the building during the May riots.

"They pack us in like animals," said Samir, a grim-faced 21-year-old with roots in Morocco. "There's nothing to do here, and it's hard to find work. If we could move away, we'd be happy."

"If we try to leave, to go into town for a film, the police stop us for ID checks and hold us all night," said Harcel, 17, whose parents came from Tunisia. "The mayor only comes here when we have a demonstration, and he's here for two minutes and then, 'Goodbye.' "

The longtime mayor, Paul Picard, considers himself sympathetic the problems of the young immigrants. But he understands why the young people of Val-Fourre hold him in contempt.

"They feel left out of society, and that is dynamite in their heads," said Mr. Picard.

"They have no job, no money, no car, and they think, 'We will be left out of this society all our lives.' Not three months or six months but all their lives. I understand this. When you are young, six months is a lifetime."

By U.S. standards, the problem of the French underclass is still embryonic.

Outbreaks of violence in France tend to be brief and sporadic, and death, when it comes, tends to quell the situation rather than inflame it. Drugs are present, but not omnipresent; murders and assaults occur, but not on a daily basis.

In purely physical terms, conditions in the projects outside Paris are generally better than in their counterparts in northern Philadelphia or the Bronx. Val-Fourre's sylvan setting is an example.

"Val-Fourre is a cache-misere," said Abdul-Kader, a jobless 20-year-old whose parents were born in Morocco. He explained the phrase: "There are trees. There is some space. But that just hides the misery. For young people, there is nothing to do but window-shop, and sometimes break the windows."

In an attempt to defuse tensions, Premier Edith Cresson announced an emergency plan in mid-June. It called for constructing 1,000 sports grounds in the suburbs, hiring 1,000 more police officers and creating a program under which 300,000 youths would be offered training by the army, fire brigades and various charities.

These huge housing projects, constructed during a time of rapid urbanization in the 1960s, were not intended to be depositories for low-income migrants. They were meant to be a planned paradise for the middle class, built out on the suburban periphery where new factories were being developed and there was plenty of space.

"It was a time when people thought big, boxy, mass dwellings were a good way to build a community," said Jean-Paul Lacaze, one of France's leading experts on housing. "What we have learned since then is that most people will choose not to live that way, if they have enough money to be able to choose."

"It's crazy to live in tower blocks 30 miles from Paris," said Mr. Picard. "Val-Fourre was a mistake, a big mistake."

All of that became obvious in the 1970s, when the middle class abandoned the housing projects en masse in favor of small bungalows in the suburbs. That left the towers to the immigrants, who were desperate for housing.

Today, in some of the projects, unemployment among young people stands at 50 percent. Immigrants complain that the French educational system, often criticized as elitist, has not adapted to their needs, that social services are poor and that they feel cut off from the world around them.

The current round of suburban explosions began last fall, when a fatal accident involving a police car ignited riots in Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon.

Those disturbances prompted the government to create a new cabinet position, minister of cities, to study the problem and devise a solution.

There was more trouble in March in Sartrouville, outside Paris, and that prompted the minister to propose a law that would make the big cities build more public housing, ultimately breaking up the suburban ghettoes.

Among the young people in Val-Fourre, there is little expectation that the government will do anything quickly enough to improve their lot.

The only measures they have heard about are a government study of the community and its plans to demolish four of the 22-story towers. The plans have been put on hold until the government decides whether it might need them to house Kurdish refugees from Iraq.

There is plenty of talk of getting out, of doing well enough to be able to escape, perhaps to Paris itself. There is occasional conversation, most of it unfocused, about young people getting organized and launching local improvement projects of their own.

"If young people get sick of waiting for promises to come true, there could be another explosion, and more death, which wouldn't accomplish anything," said Cia, 19, from the island of Reunion off the east coast of Africa. "But we have to try to make things better.

"This place is a prison," she said, "but it's our prison."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad