As Flames Die Down, Young People in France Exhale and Organize

New America Media, News Feature, Published: November 16, 2005

Editor’s Note: As the fires burn to a smolder in France’s suburbs after two weeks of rioting, young people recognize each other’s frustration in the light of the flames

PARIS–Burnt and rotting garbage spills from melted dumpsters at the entrance to a public housing project here in Saint-Denis, a suburb north of Paris. The refuse has lain here for more than a week, blocking the walkway and serving as a reminder of the violence. Four teenagers stand in front of the building, one of them holding tight to a dog on a leash. As they turn to walk away, one of them says, “Nobody has come to clean it up because nobody cares.”

As the flames die down and the violence subsides, young minorities in France are left with the same issues that prompted the outrage — job discrimination, a lack of options and resources and a sense that they are not accepted as members of French society. The young people here are torn, at once invigorated and encouraged that their plight has been forced into the national dialogue, but wrestling with a suspicion that it will soon pass with no resulting change.

Beyond any cynicism, though, these young people are faced with lingering cultural questions. Most of them identify primarily as French, feeling a stronger connection here than to the country from which their parents or grandparents immigrated. But they say they feel rejected by the country that they have embraced, which leaves many of them feeling baseless and lost.

Doppy (pronounced Dopey) Gomis is a young Senegalese man born and raised in the suburbs north of Paris. He works, like so many of the young men in the suburbs, as a security guard, though his passion is music. As Skanner, he raps over beats he and his friends make and sells the CDs through what he calls “street marketing.” On this night, he is patrolling an elementary school in the red nylon jacket of the security company and a backwards New York Yankees hat. He takes a break, though, to offer a verse of his. Though some of the wit and wordplay get lost in the translation, the ideas are resonant.

“I’ve got French citizenship/But on French land they consider me an immigrant/On the other side, I’m just a tourist/To me a visa is just a scrap of paper/That keeps you floating while the water gets deeper and deeper/But it’s clear/If I had everything given to me/I might never have these moments of clarity.”

Back in Paris, at the meeting place for Racort, an organization serving Turks and Kurds, a group of young people sit around drinking tea and discussing what they call the “protests” of the past two weeks. 

There is much talk of the history of immigrants in France, from colonization of North Africa to a labor movement in the 1980s. They are talking excitedly, gesticulating wildly and interrupting each other every couple sentences.

Three of the young people there belong to a political group that they helped organize in January. Encouraged by the protests, they have begun drafting a manifesto. The group’s name, which is loosely translated as “The Indigenous Movement,” refers to a unifying factor of the different nationalities involved in their movement. The communities here are comprised of people from all over — Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria — but there is a sense of oneness among these groups. 

They are careful to point out crucial differences, but they describe their movement as “necessarily inclusive.”

Jeren, a young Kurdish woman who declined to give her last name, talked extensively about these differences. “On the one hand, Turks and Kurds don’t necessarily identify with this movement. For one, Turkey was never colonized by France. There might be some Turks who are proud of this, calling us sons and daughters of the Ottoman Empire. But for us, we identify with this movement that is emerging because in the eyes of the French mainstream, we fall into the same category. Our names aren’t French and we get rejected from jobs just as the others.”

Some young people are careful to distance themselves from the violence, though they are frustrated by the same issues. Anthony Simoti is a Tunisian from Dunkerque, an industrial town in the North. Despite the lack of work and opportunity, there was almost no violent activity there. Anthony explained, “There might not be much to do here (in Dunkerque), but we have better things to spend our money on than gasoline to burn cars.” Anthony carried a worn leather briefcase with copies of his resume and was more concerned with finding work than any talk of a political movement.

Tahar Illikoud is a Spanish Algerian who has lived in the suburbs of Paris for 30 years. He, too, is a security guard and has spent the past two weeks away from his family, driving around the neighborhood on his own time, extinguishing fires and talking to the young people in the streets. “The police can’t do this. We have to talk to each other, take care of each other.”

He shares an insightful observation on Zinedine Zidane, France’s most popular soccer star and one of the biggest names in the sport worldwide. “Zidane’s parents, his mother, his father come from Algeria but he is treated as French. When he plays, he plays for France and when he wins, France wins. But us, we don’t know what we are. I live for France, I work for France and everything I do is for France, not for my home country. The only difference is that I have an Arab face. And at the end we don’t know if we are French or if we are strangers.”

While the issues of identity and cultural acceptance have been forced to the front, a cohesive response has not. This outburst was a release of frustration, and now people are eager to return to their lives. They want jobs. What is significant is that people have recognized the extent of the frustration in each other. They saw themselves and their own exasperation and anger in the streets, whether they were out there or not.

An older Turkish man at Racort echoed a common sentiment. “The violence just creates a new problem to deal with!” Very quickly, Jeren cuts him off. “Yes, but there is an awareness now that can’t be ignored.”

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