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Liberty, fraternity and equality...


GH and I were talking about this just this morning  at breakfast and he came to the same conclusion, that the riots in France not about poverty or religion but about the police.


November 9, 2005

Inside French Housing Project, Feelings of Being the Outsiders

ÉVRY, France, Nov. 8 - Amin Kouidri, 20, has been hunting for a job for more than two years now and spends his days drifting around a government housing project here under the watchful gaze of France's national police.

He and his neighbors in one of France's now-notorious housing projects say that they feel cut off from French society, a result of a process of segregation lasting for decades, and that alienation and pressure from the police have now exploded in rage across the country.

"There's nothing to do, and frustrations have added up until in the end it has become like a bomb that they carry inside," said Azzouz Camen, 44, at a small snack bar he owns between the neighborhood's apartment blocks and a gleaming new mosque.

For these men, the violence that has swept the country is easy to understand, even, they say, long overdue, not only because of the unemployment but because of the increasing confrontation with the police.

On Tuesday, after two weeks of violence, the government declared a state of emergency, imposing curfews on numerous trouble spots. [Page A12.]

Mr. Kouidri, his short hair swept forward with gel, was born here to North African immigrants and educated in French schools. He trained as a pastry chef and has been seeking work steadily to no avail.

"If you don't have a job, you get into drugs, you get into trouble," he said, nursing a cup of tea in the chilly air outside Mr. Camen's snack bar in this southern Paris suburb.

Others turn to religion, a trend that has worried many officials even as it reassures an older generation of immigrants who have seen their children stray.

"People need to hang on to something," Mr. Camen said. At prayer time, a steady stream of men pass his snack bar on the way to the mosque.

But the focus on religion has added to the tension. Fears of Islamic extremism and the terrorism it sometimes breeds have increased the mistrust between traditional French society and the immigrant neighborhoods, particularly after a spate of bombings in the 1990's and the terrorist violence of the past few years. People in the projects say this has increased the pressure from the police.

"If you practice your religion, you're dangerous, if you don't drink alcohol, you're dangerous," said a man at the snack bar who would only give his name as Mohammed.

The police circle the apartment blocks in their cars or sit at the two roads that lead in and out of the sprawling neighborhood, periodically stopping and searching - and angering - the men they see. Worse, said Mohammed and others, is when the police appear in riot gear.

"At dusk, they put on their helmets and as soon as they do that the kids say, great, there's going to be a party tonight," Mohammed said. He said an often destructive game of cat-and-mouse has ensued.

In other projects, the story is the same.

"They come to provoke us," said a 22-year-old man named Sofiane in the Franc-Moisin projects north of Paris, claiming that the police plant drugs on young men suspected of being dealers. "They arrest us for nothing."

His brother, Nassin, was quick to admit that violence is often the response. He claimed that he set off a small bomb outside the prefecture's police station after his brother was arrested a few months ago. "It's not unemployment, it's the police," he said.

The projects were built in the 1960's as part of a postwar urban planning dream: modern blocks of tidy apartments surrounding lawns and playgrounds, social centers and stores. They drew people from cramped, old houses in the provinces and cramped, old tenements in the city. When immigrants began arriving in the 1960's, they moved into the subsidized housing, too. Residents describe the early days as full of optimism and hope.

"Everyone had work and lived with the expectation that their children would have better jobs than their parents," said Harlem Désir, a son of an immigrant from Martinique who grew up in a housing project in Bagneux, north of Paris.

Working-class French and working-class immigrants lived side by side in the buildings. Education was free and all of the children were taught the catechism of France's republican ideal: that under the French state, they enjoyed liberty, fraternity and equality. The reality of discrimination was something they learned on their own.

"You're French on your identity card, French to pay taxes and to go into the army, but for the rest, you're an Arab," said Hassan Marouni, 38, who came to France from his native Morocco with his parents 30 years ago. He said he had only been able to find temporary factory jobs and is currently unemployed.

Most of the native French moved out of the projects in a 1980's government-sponsored home-buying program. Few immigrant families could afford to participate and most were left behind. As the first wave of French-born children of immigrants came of age, they realized that the opportunities afforded them fell far short of those enjoyed by their native French friends.

Delinquency flourished in the now predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and the police cracked down. That led to a summer of rioting in 1983 similar to the current unrest, but on a smaller scale.

Mr. Désir emerged as a leader from that unrest and helped organize a march for equal rights that started in the immigrant neighborhoods outside Lyon and ended in Paris.

 The press dubbed it the March of the Beurs, using the immigrants' slang word for Arab, and France's left-leaning intelligentsia embraced the cause, seeing in it an echo of the United States' civil rights movement. President François Mitterrand received some of the marchers at Élysée Palace and euphoria swept through the country's children of immigrants. They had stood up and been heard.

But little happened after that. Mr. Désir and others said the housing projects were repainted, elevators fixed and social workers assigned to help guide the young. The government helped Mr. Désir establish a discrimination watchdog organization and he later went on to his current job as a Socialist member of the European Parliament.

Few others reaped such bright futures. Even today, France, with the largest non-European immigrant population in Europe, has only a handful of minorities in senior government, news media or corporate positions, a sharp contrast with some European countries with smaller minority populations.

As disappointment settled over the projects and discrimination outside them grew, young French of West African and North African origin withdrew into their neighborhoods' increasingly closed world.

"The violence is an expression of anger but also a cry for help," Mr. Désir said. "The state must be there to guarantee that people will be protected from discrimination, treated correctly by the police, helped to get out of the projects."

Otherwise, he warned, the door is open for other ideologies, like fundamentalist Islam. Mr. Désir, who is a Roman Catholic, said the number of French-born youths who have been recruited to violent radical groups was small so far, "but it has sounded an alarm."

An economic downturn hit the immigrant neighborhoods harder than the rest of the country, and many of the jobs never came back. A series of deadly bombings in France by terrorists tied to a war in Algeria further soured the national mood toward the growing immigrant population.

As things grew steadily worse, crime in and from the projects grew. An effort by the last Socialist administration helped improve things a bit by putting police officers on the beat in the neighborhoods and providing money to create jobs for young residents. But both programs ended after Jacques Chirac became president.

His tough interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, replaced the police on the beat with officers from an anti-crime brigade who cover several towns at a time. Their aggressive tactics have won almost universal scorn in the projects and created an air of hostility that has precipitated the current violence.

"They're cowboys, they're Rambos," Mr. Marouni complained. He said the situation had deteriorated rapidly since the anti-crime brigade arrived.

Many young people now spend the majority of their time in the small world of their projects, threatened by the police if they venture too far.

"When you're in your project, you're safe, but if you go out it's more dangerous," said a tall, young man who gave his name as Kunta Kinte, smoking a marijuana cigarette near the Temple Woods projects in Clichy-sous-Bois north of the city.

The balconies of the apartment blocks of Évry's housing projects are crowded with drying laundry, bicycles and flower boxes. Teenagers and mothers with strollers crisscross the leafy, parklike grounds.

"The apartments are nice," said Mr. Marouni, who now lives with his wife and three children in a three-bedroom apartment in one of the buildings.

"It's not a problem of poverty," said Alain Touraine, an expert on integration in France, adding that the underlying problems are deeper. "What we are living through is a general process of rapid reverse integration that is the result of failures on both sides."

He believes that the only way to solve the problem is to create public debate so people can address each other rather than the caricatures they see.

People in the neighborhoods say they have a simpler solution - pull back the police and help idle young people find jobs.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company