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The price of disdain

French author Francois Bon writes on life in the French suburban "villes nouvelles", and his feelings of helplessness at the recent violence there.

The first act of violence took place long ago - it has been continuous and deep-seated. The people were parked in one block of flats or another, one suburban housing estate or another. Entire districts were left to steep in their own misery: businesses settled only in communities that had said no to housing estates. The gap widened. And what's worse, now young people from the suburbs are expected to go to suburban universities at Nanterre, Créteil or Villetaneuse. They literally need hand-contour biometric identification to enrol at Jussieu or the Sorbonne in downtown Paris.

This sort of societal disdain pushes people to resist, to fight. In fact Seine Saint-Denis, "nine-three", or "nine cubed", as they call France's department with the number 93, is a magnificent laboratory of the hyper-city, mixing music, urban transformation and youth literature. I think it's the only department in France where philosophy teachers are sent to teach 14-year-old adolescents who're destined to become underpaid tradesmen and apprentices. But such experiments are a drop in a very dirty bucket.

For years I've been hearing about the permanent identity checks and frisks. It's impossible to get a job or find an apartment, if you're from Aulnay Sous Bois or la Courneuve. And yet people don't give up trying to make the borders between city and suburb more porous: the "concrete slab" of Argenteuil is no richer for having wanted to call itself Val d'Argenteuil, and now even Val d'Argent. But several prefab housing estates were demolished, and a pedestrian walkway now connects the suburban enclave to the outside world via the suburban rail station. In the centre of the Parisian suburb Saint-Denis, and in many other French cities, ten years of work have brought about some needed changes: the high-rise housing estates have been connected to the city centres by tram, social housing has changed its image and attracts students as well as families.

Things could change. Fifteen years ago, I lived in Bobigny in the Paris suburbs. The old working populations had settled in a belt of "villes nouvelles" around Paris. And younger people came to work in the modern factories, just a metro ride from the capital. But the high schools didn't follow suit. Young teachers are sent to these locations on their first assignments, and are rotated fast. Despite all attempts to the contrary, these areas are becoming ghettos, and the situation is getting worse. Take Villepinte. It's a protected city comprised of family homes. All of Aulnay's middle class moved there, and now Aulnay is going to the dumps.

Clichy-sous-Bois, where the most recent violence flared up, is a city without a centre. I worked in the high school there for a year (in the Lycée Alfred-Nobel, with an an excellent, committed staff). Between the lycée and the high rises there's a MacDonald's, a field for training dogs and a four lane highway. It's one of the poorest cities in one of France's poorest departments, and the state is increasingly washing its hands of the problem.

But people keep trying to improve things, because there's no alternative, because it's vital. The massive influx of families in the 1970s, entire villages even, from Morocco and Algeria who came to work at the Citroen factory in Aulnay and the Renault factory in Flins can't be reversed. Disdain is widespread. For years people have been struggling against it, but the going is slow. I'm now giving writing workshops in the suburb of Pantin. There's a community youth centre there where a dozen people, often locals, help out.

But in the end you come up against a wall. The disdain is omnipresent. And when you come up against a dead end, all that remains is fear. I've been working in these departments for years, as a writer and giving writing workshops. Last June, when I was doing a series of portraits for the tv channel arte with two adolescents attending trade school, a gang of 10- and 11-year-olds forced us to turn around in our tracks. And three weeks ago in Pantin, I was about to start a workshop in the library for 20 or so young hairdressing students. At first five, then ten youths physically prevented me from teaching literature to their sisters and girlfriends. Suddenly the sweat shirts and hoods were there. They showed me, the 'white' guy, what disdain was like from the other side. The whole situation is appalling.

Last year when the lycée students in Seine Saint-Denis were demonstrating for better conditions, several dozen youths who go to school in even worse conditions confronted the demonstrators, smashed windows and extorted their mobile telephones. It's this totalitarian, erratic side to the violence that's so frightening. It's the chaos. The cars they're burning belong to their own parents, friends and neighbours. These youths are taking out their frustration on the schools, the day-cares, the fire department. There's a hint of religious despotism to it all that gets worse with each new proof of disdain. The warning bells have been going off for years. For years people have known there was another way, for the city, for the schools. But for all that, the inequalities and the permanent social gap have only worsened. We've crossed the symbolic border: the Republic is asserting itself through the mouth of a minister full of personal ambition, who's trying to steal votes away from the extreme right.

What gives me and all of my acquaintances - educators, urbanists and musicians - even more cause for chagrin is that no tactics are left open to us to resist, influence and change things. We've given our best and it no longer counts. We're like the fire trucks under the protesters' stones. We daren't think of all the harm that's been done, and what it would take to undo it. It's not just burned cars. The contacts we'd established, the social net we'd woven, have burned as well. I'm afraid.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on November 8, 2005.

Francois Bon, born in 1953, has given numerous writing workshops with youths in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis. His last publication is "Daewoo", published in French by Fayard in 2004.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european