OxBlog

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

# Posted 3:34 AM by Patrick Belton  

THE 'GIVE A BLOGGER A CHANCE' FOUNDATION prize for the day would go happily to the generous people at Public Radio International, who very kindly had me on to their Radio Open Source programme last night from the banlieu of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where I spent the day from morning till midnight speaking with its residents. Incidentally, the staff at PRI and their Detroit affiliate are really wonderful people, and I enjoyed every aspect of being on their airwaves. You can listen to the broadcast here. It's kind of like podcasting.

I'd arrived at Aulnay-sous-Bois yesterday expecting a seething cauldron on just the point of boiling over. What I found was quite different, and surprised me. Aulnay has seen the worst violence of any of the banlieues to date, but its housing projects had their windows open, laundry hung out to dry, music and laughter spilling out from within; the streets were filled with children playing. The only odd inkling this was a neighbourhood whose violence this week featured in the news of every newspaper in the world was the procession of the odd burnt car being towed away like a discarded effigy; or, in the case of the Hertz station which lay inconveniently by the Cité de l'Europe, a whole parking lot of them. Someone clearly had a bad experience the last time renting.

To back up a moment, two things take place at the RER-B stop immediately before Aulnay's. One, the graffiti stops; and two, all the white people get off. But on exiting the station one could be forgiven an unsettling feeling you'd accidentally got off at the wrong dodgy banlieu. In the vieux pays and the area about the gare - southern Aulnay - the only indication that you're not in another well-heeled metropolitan suburb anywhere in the world is the awfully well-reinforced steel walls setting apart the houses, replete with their gardens and long driveways, from the street. This is a quarter with hotels: the cars on the streets are BMWs. It's only when you go north from there, up toward the Citroën plant and the R.N. 2 which bisects the banlieu, that you encounter the fields of high-rise housing projects, the famous cités. When the first of these were erected in the aftermath of the second world war, they were considered rather nice places to live - they had running water and en suite toilets inside, not by any means a given within the périphérique, where the postwar chaos was such to create the lasting impression on the other side of the Channel that the French were a naturally malodorous lot. It fit in Houssmanian traditions of rationalisation in Parisian city planning, and the aesthetic tendencies of Courbusier. It wasn't until the 1970s, the Algerian civil war and the onset of massive labour migration to Paris from the maghreb, that the acquired the reputation as a no-go zone that they retain today.

Go and talk to their residents, and you're struck that they're actually rather nice to you once you say hello. As assiduously as I donned turtleneck and leather jacket to simulate a Frenchman and, it was hoped, a not too out of place banluisard, I still perhaps didn't quite fit in, whatever diversified portfolio of national identities in which I might traffic, French maghrebian being decidedly not among them. Fairly tough lads, though, will still chat with you quite amiably once you talk to them; at any rate, they didn't seem too eager to engage in busting up any cars while I was there with my notebook and camera, however much I tried to indicate they really should pretend I wasn't there, make themselves at home and just carry on with what they were doing. Most residents of the cités where I spent the day behaved in a way that's quite familiar from housing projects across the world; they queued to pick up their playing children from school, they dropped off teenagers by car in the late evening, and a handful of them engaged in the time-honoured pursuit of sitting about outside with a cigarette or two trying their best to look ominous. Talk to them, and to admit selection bias I haven't yet caught up with anyone with a sledgehammer, and they express intense fury at the rioters, who they feel will quite neatly worsen the lot of the banlieu residents and people of north African descent, playing perfectly into the worst suspicions held about them and mitigating any chance for improving their lot. (This may not be the case, entirely: De Villepin is announcing a ferry of equality-of-opportunity initiatives, to include curiously lowering the age of school-leaving from 16 to 14 for children seeking out an apprenticeship. But social sentiment, and the often expressed feeling that a c.v. bearing the name of Ahmed and not Alain will quickly end up in the bed, is less likely to be so sympathetic.) Shopkeepers are peculiarly angry; they've had to lose business from early closings, and fear for their plate glass. In a sense, then, it is a neighbourhood stricken by fury - but this aimed inward at the rioters and not outward at France, quite to my surprise, really.

Policing is an interesting drama to observe here, and fits this reading of the banlieu riots as the handiwork of determined criminal gangs rather than a spontaneous, Francophone uprising of the oppressed to gladden the hearts of Trotskyists. (So does incidentally the pattern of violence - it dances about from banlieu to banlieu, staying one step ahead of increased policing in a cat-and-mouse strategic tango.) Go to the tourist core, the Champs and Arc de Triomphe, and you will see quite visible policing in spodes. It's policing intended not only to deter, but also to be visible, to comfort tourists and native Parisians that their city is intact. I've noted already the busloads of gendarmes, painted blue and bearing 'gendarmerie' in white letters on the side, and the tens of cars and wagons from the police nationale parked alongside the Champs metro station. But go to Aulnay and a quite different pattern emerges. At first, I'd thought that it was minimally policed if at all; only the periodic patrol car from the well-heeled southern police annexe protecting the respectable cars of the besieged comparably affluent, and the northern annexe situated alongside the projects which is there for quite a different reason. But look closer, and there are signs that here there indeed is a war being fought by the French state, not by massive billeting of troops to quell an uprise and reassert the temporarily abeyed sovereignty of the state and the monopoly of leviathan on force, but a more secret war, being fought by the security services against determined hardened criminal networks, clandestinely and quietly selecting its targets, and in the shadows so as not to alienate a broader and possibly tendentious populace. Look carefully at the cars going by, and there are not only those occupied by project residents and the southern quarter's shopmen, but ones bearing in each seat beefy short-coiffured men clearly only recently out of the forces, if at that, with more than a bit of technological wizardry inside to boot. There is a bus of gendarmes here as well, but this one does not bear the title 'gendarmerie' on the side to comfort those whom it protects and serves; it has its lights out, and is parked at an out-of-the-way stop a few roads removed from a project to effectively simulate an off-duty bus. Peer closer into its darkened windows and it is a hive of activity. The French state is here too; it has not given up on these of its neighbourhoods; it merely joins the battle on its terms, and against its selected enemies. Partially this may reflect the units under the control of the Minister of the Interior, whose remit includes the security services but not the armed ones (these last controlled by a resolute Chiracien at the MOD.) But one hopes that the French state is not so wholly riven by its succession struggle that it is incapable of strategic action; and these instruments would fit that reading of the situation nicely. A state defeats riotous masses with brigades and divisions; but one counters lightly mobile criminal gangs with a tradecraft determinedly more old-school, quiet, hardened and effective.

The banlieues slept quietly last night, the fireworks heading instead on the road to Toulouse; at 5, my drinking buddy from NPR, borrowing quickly my map of Aulnay to scribble down the mosque before heading to meet a bravely non-Francophone parachuter, was summoned to a southern banlieu where, the mobile phone-mediated reportorial meme machine reported, the night's action was to be. (It wasn't; but I'm promised interesting stories nonetheless over our next impromptu stringers' brigade alcohol tasting party à tête.) It's raining, which may just dampen things a bit tonight. I'm headed to the Aulnay mosque to make friends and try and file a lengthier piece from there, being as it is the site of the most resolute violence still. It's hugely ugly weather. I was able to shoot off a memory card of film of images of the Aulnay projects; I'll share them here as soon as I prove technologically capable. The sunset was a striking image, rising red over the banlieues and stamped bright with the white partial moon of the huntress.

(Incidentally, for those of you who hadn't read it already, perhaps the internet censors will permit me to dredge up this piece the TLS kindly ran over the summer about the banlieues. Or, if you're our reader in Mexico, you can wait for the Spanish-language edition which I'm told by my TLS editor is coming out this weekend in the literary supplement of Madrid's newspaper ABC. OxBlog: multilingual since next Sunday.)
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