Paris - Migration und Banlieue: Kunst der Banlieue (German Edition)

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Yet what of the golden opportunities, what of the subversive joy of the outsider, both age-old ingredients of communities beyond the pale, whose inhabitants are forced to live by their wits? Might it be possible to lift up a seam of those uniformly gray suburbs and find a golden underside?

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At first glance, the prospects are not good. I am standing at the Porte de la Villette, one of the northern gateways to Paris. One hundred years ago cobblestone streets echoed with the clatter of hooves, the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the snorting, but also the plaintive, almost human cry, of hogs—all being led to the slaughter.

With the park behind me, cut off from view by a high wall of recent public housing and a huge hotel conveniently located, for motorists and buses, at the gateway to Paris, I approach a railway overpass. I must walk beneath it—the first obstacle on the path from Paris to its northern banlieues. All of Paris is polluted; no longer can one stroll pleasantly along the rue de Rivoli, especially at rush hour when car exhaust clouds the air, yet there one finds beauty, and here there is none.

Those of us who make the passage on foot walk quickly, eyes down or straight ahead. Next to us, cars rush by, and above there is the clatter of trains. On the other side of the overpass, we are still in Paris. Here the homeless are herded onto buses that will take them to shelters for the night.

At dawn, they will be back in the streets. I walk among the listless men, who pay no attention to me. On each side of us there are rail yards. A six-lane highway divides the yards in two. Across the street from where the men huddle, there are a gas station and a bus depot. This is the buffer zone between Paris and its dangerous banlieues. Standing at the entrance to an on or off-ramp, pedestrians nervously look both ways there are traffic signals, but it is wise not to count on them before they make a run for it.

After one more off-ramp, we have arrived: the northern suburbs, les quartiers difficiles , the 9—3 neuf—trois , as it is called here, in reference to the numbers that identify the residents of Seine-Saint-Denis, as this suburb is called, on their license plates and in their postal code. I have just entered the suburban town of Aubervilliers. Recently reporters flocked here and to the neighboring town of La Courneuve to interview idle youth hanging out in gangs outside or in the lobbies of their apartment blocks. The young people rage on about the lack of opportunity and about the racism and intolerance of the French a category to which they too belong , and in many ways their criticisms are not wrong.

The sidewalk in front of it is often transformed into a makeshift bazaar.

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On this cold November evening, a handful of men, straddling kitchen chairs, their arms resting on the seat backs, sit outside and talk. Closer to the doorway of the building, from a brazier set atop a shopping cart, a young man is selling roasted ears of corn. Men go in and out of the lobby; nearly all the windows are lit. This is a Foyer Sonacotra, one of many residences and dormitories for workingmen throughout France, owned and financed partly by the state.

This particular residence is inhabited mainly by black-skinned men from sub-Saharan Africa. Some work night shifts in order to attend university by day, and some are political refugees. Others are retired and share a crowded room, because this is all their pension allows. What they get is a crowded room in a foyer, where men sleep on bunk beds, cook their meals in communal kitchens, and pray in makeshift prayer rooms.

For this, many of their compatriots are ready to risk their lives in getting here. Is that why, despite what must be extremely trying living conditions and possibly even worse working conditions, the men who inhabit this Foyer Sonacotra seem possessed of a buoyant energy? They have made it to France, they work, and they can give their families hope. On this cold evening, activities out front on the sidewalk are limited, but in warm weather, at this hour, the makeshift bazaar would be in full swing, especially on a Sunday.


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On their sole day of rest, many devote themselves to entrepreneurship. The tailor is at work, as is the shoemaker. Music is blasting, men mill about this is a masculine world—in all of France, only 6 percent of the space in such foyers is reserved for women, most of it in special structures for mothers raising their children alone.

Across this busy scene wafts the scent of golden opportunity. In the busiest commercial district of Aubervilliers, a neighborhood appropriately called Quatre Chemins Crossroads , another breed of entrepreneur is at work. Here are the resellers of contraband goods: meek, patient Chinese women who stand for hours with a bottle of perfume in their hands, trying to attract the attention of passersby, nervous young men with cheap nylon bags, filled with imitation Dior or Louis Vuitton purses—they work fast and disappear quickly, having engaged in dangerous work.

Some women dangle one or two gold chains from their fingers. Others, stooped against a wall of a vacant lot, display on the sidewalk what may be the clothes off their back. There are also many legitimate shops and some food stores in the style of North Africa, where the customer goes up to a counter and is served by an employee, who discretely disappears when it is time to pay, for only the owner handles cash. Quatre Chemins represents a true crossroads, for who knows how many nations and continents meet here.

Noisy, vibrant, dangerous, poor, and full of opportunity—for the entrepreneurial and also for France. Yet the French Republic is blind to its immigrant population and the surplus of energy it could bring to an ailing nation, but one not condemned to inevitable decline. Engaged these past months in a collective ritual of auto-flagellation, they seem to have lost sight of the very reasons for their greatness, which remain obvious to any outsider in their midst. For this reason, the French government keeps no official statistics on the race, religion, or ethnic origins of its citizens.

The French government keeps careful statistics on the number of foreigners residing in France. It also keeps careful statistics on the population of its prisons, whose inmates are overwhelmingly of North African and sub-Saharan African origins. In this time of national crisis, however, it cannot provide reliable statistical information about those citizens who have recently immigrated to France or about their children. Those who have tried are accused of breaking the law and harshly criticized.

The document represented an infraction of the law. The results were only recently made available online, precisely five days after the flare-up of suburban violence in late October. It is no surprise to learn that discrimination weighs most heavily on those French citizens whose parents were born in black Africa, North Africa, or Turkey. An indirect consequence of the restrictions placed on the collection and use of ethnic or racial data has been the creation of a perverse double standard in the media depending on whether they are reporting on domestic or international affairs.


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In this way the French are called upon to adhere to an abstract model of citizenship. Yet they can and do see. For a brown or black-skinned citizen, this can mean, in concrete terms, lack of opportunity, or outright discrimination, in housing, employment, and politics. But for Karim, Sabah, and Mamadou, it is difficult to perceive things that way.

On November 14, when President Jacques Chirac addressed the French nation for the first time since the banlieues had erupted in violence on October 27, something looked different about him: he was wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Was this a sign that the Republic itself was ready to learn how to see?

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Though a few cars burned within the fortress walls, Paris was largely spared during the November violence. Even so, when I set out on November 11, Armistice Day, a public holiday in France, walking in the direction of the northern banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis, I was expecting neither violence nor flames. Nor was I in search of angry young men, ready to give me their version of recent events.

Setting out from the Porte des Lilas, at the northeastern edge of Paris, I had crossed three busy boulevards before I arrived at a wall overlooking a kind of moat, a superhighway, eight lanes wide, carved out of the slope of the hillside. In front of me is the entrance to the town of Les Lilas, gateway to Seine-Saint-Denis, where I see some blocks of public housing.

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I also see a very recent private housing development, a huge structure in the form of a ziggurat, offering wide balconies and a panoramic view to its residents, the kind of apartment complex one would expect to find on the Riviera or the Florida coast. Engaged these past months in a collective ritual of auto-flagellation, they seem to have lost sight of the very reasons for their greatness, which remain obvious to any outsider in their midst. For this reason, the French government keeps no official statistics on the race, religion, or ethnic origins of its citizens.

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The French government keeps careful statistics on the number of foreigners residing in France. It also keeps careful statistics on the population of its prisons, whose inmates are overwhelmingly of North African and sub-Saharan African origins. In this time of national crisis, however, it cannot provide reliable statistical information about those citizens who have recently immigrated to France or about their children.

Those who have tried are accused of breaking the law and harshly criticized. The document represented an infraction of the law. The results were only recently made available online, precisely five days after the flare-up of suburban violence in late October. It is no surprise to learn that discrimination weighs most heavily on those French citizens whose parents were born in black Africa, North Africa, or Turkey. An indirect consequence of the restrictions placed on the collection and use of ethnic or racial data has been the creation of a perverse double standard in the media depending on whether they are reporting on domestic or international affairs.

In this way the French are called upon to adhere to an abstract model of citizenship. Yet they can and do see. For a brown or black-skinned citizen, this can mean, in concrete terms, lack of opportunity, or outright discrimination, in housing, employment, and politics.

But for Karim, Sabah, and Mamadou, it is difficult to perceive things that way.


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On November 14, when President Jacques Chirac addressed the French nation for the first time since the banlieues had erupted in violence on October 27, something looked different about him: he was wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Was this a sign that the Republic itself was ready to learn how to see? Though a few cars burned within the fortress walls, Paris was largely spared during the November violence. Even so, when I set out on November 11, Armistice Day, a public holiday in France, walking in the direction of the northern banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis, I was expecting neither violence nor flames.

Nor was I in search of angry young men, ready to give me their version of recent events. Setting out from the Porte des Lilas, at the northeastern edge of Paris, I had crossed three busy boulevards before I arrived at a wall overlooking a kind of moat, a superhighway, eight lanes wide, carved out of the slope of the hillside.

In front of me is the entrance to the town of Les Lilas, gateway to Seine-Saint-Denis, where I see some blocks of public housing. I also see a very recent private housing development, a huge structure in the form of a ziggurat, offering wide balconies and a panoramic view to its residents, the kind of apartment complex one would expect to find on the Riviera or the Florida coast.

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