From Wed Jul 10 11:30:13 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: France's estate of fear
Date: Wed, 10 Jul 2002 15:10:21 +0200 (CEST)

Immigrant voices in European Politics: France's estate of fear

By Rabah Ait-Hamadouche, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2002

During the presidential election in France, politicians pushing law and order picked on people from poor housing estates as troublemakers, prompting protest votes and abstentions. But Le Pen's brief success galvanised immigrant voters and began their new drive for political representation.

On La Grande Borne, a housing estate in Grigny, 30 kilometres south of Paris, a long wall stretches as far as the eye can see, with a main road on one side of it, and a motorway on the other. From above, this estate seems a 1960s Utopia, its labyrinth of little housing blocks, tiny squares, lawns and giant sculptures almost poetic. But at ground level dull reality is everywhere: ageing concrete buildings, featureless facades, an occasional patch of grass—and decay.

The statistics for this problem estate are impressive: 225 acres, 3,600 homes, 15,000 inhabitants, 52 nationalities. But other figures are more alarming: more than one in four is unemployed, half the population is under 25, one in four is of foreign origin and hundreds of tenants are under threat of eviction.

The reputation of the estate of fear, as some call it (1), is abysmal. Life here means unemployment, casual labour, insecurity and exclusion. An alternative society (2) has sprung up here, with its own code of behaviour, its own rites and laws, which tenants who want a quiet life do not openly question. Nobody trusts their neighbours, a sign of how the social fabric has crumbled. The departure of most of the estate's native French families has made the abandonment worse and encouraged ghettos.

The immigrant families, mainly from Africa and the Maghreb, who have been here the longest, resent the social and physical isolation. The few remaining French people complain constantly about the discrimination they supposedly suffer. Abdel, a young father from Tunisia, says: Many of the poor whites feel like they have been invaded. They're so afraid of us they keep their shutters closed all day. It is even worse since 11 September. They don't see Arabs as thieves any more, but as terrorists.

In the first round of the presidential election, voters from the estate put Le Pen in second place, with 14.6% of the poll, ahead of Chirac (12.5%) but well behind Jospin (25%). In the second round, the estate voted massively for Chirac (86%) and against Le Pen (14%). Between the two rounds abstention fell from 44% to 30%.

Finding anybody who actually voted for Le Pen is no easy task. Unfounded rumours in the local press claim the beurs (3) voted for the far right. Vincent Geisser, of the Middle East Research Institute (Iremam) in Aix-en-Provence, challenges this. He says it is pure fantasy (4), and part of a phobia about Islam. He adds: All the research shows that most French Muslims reject the far-right. The National Front targets them specifically, refuses to recognise their immigrant past, and defends groups that hanker after French rule in Algeria. However a few Arabs vote Le Pen, just as some Jews do. Their behaviour may be explained by the current hostility between the two communities. Voting Le Pen is a way of hurting the others.

Second-generation immigrants, who are over-represented on France's large housing estates, are increasingly sensitive to law and order issues. And for good reason. They are often on the receiving end of vandalism, especially the wrecking of letterboxes, staircases and cars.

Kader, a young, unemployed man of North African origin, explains: Insecurity exerts an unseen but constant pressure, causing sudden, inexplicable outbursts. People here can't express their resentment in words, so it comes out in violence. But insecurity means miserable poverty, which kills children when they fall down poorly maintained liftshafts.

The population of the estate is quick to distance itself from the delinquent minority that wrecks daily life. A more radical attitude is coalescing. Some no longer hesitate to use rightwing stereotypes (5). Although they do not approve of zero tolerance policies, many in the 30-40 age group are worried about the next generation and its lack of direction, since it only seems interested in money and strength. Even if the insecurity has got less since the police stopped being so provocative, it's still unbearable, says one. I don't want anyone stealing or burning my car. But a rightwing government is scary too. Their flashball guns (6) may kill.

‘Why should we vote?’

Azzedine, 27, is a French national of Algerian origin. Safouan, 24, comes from Tunisia. With their sports clothes and sunglasses they cultivate the streetwise image that older people fear. Both have always lived here and dropped out of school early. They have no time for politics, saying: Why should we vote? Neither Le Pen or Chirac makes any difference to us. Politicians don't want to know we live in a ghetto. They don't even try to understand our violence comes from just scraping by. France has not learnt to live with its immigrants and it keeps telling us that. It's every man for himself.

Sa´d is also a French national of Algerian origin. He has worked for the last five years as a group leader on the estate. He says: I'm not going to vote until my parents can vote in local elections. They may be immigrants but they've lived here for 30 years, paying tax like everyone else. They've given their best years to the country. But no one takes an interest in us. No one came to see us before the election or between the two rounds, even though we're the main targets of far right ideology. They've silenced our parents and pay no attention to what we say.

According to the Immigration and Suburbs Movement (MIB) most French immigrants in the suburbs of large towns do not vote. They are not even on the electoral register. Like other lower class people in France, they reject the political establishment.

But the result of the first round of the presidential election had a cathartic effect. Robert, a group leader in the council sports department, recalls the fears of young beurs: They were panic-stricken at the idea they might be deported. According to Jibril from Senegal, the election brought people to their senses: No one thought Le Pen would actually get in, but all my mates got up early to vote Chirac just in case.

French immigrants, particularly from North Africa, no longer tolerate anyone else speaking on their behalf. It heightens the sense of being second-class citizens. This feeling is acute now that Le Pen voters feel less inhibited about racist talk. The immigrants are beginning to be aware of their predicament and what they intend to do about it. Farhad Khosrokhavar, a head of research at the Graduate School of Social Science (EHESS) in Paris, says: Something started moving a few years ago, but the election events prompted a new involvement. The centre of gravity for French people of immigrant origin is moving back to France, whereas it used to be somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Before the elections the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had already given substance to this new awareness. North African immigrants see the second intifada, like the defence of the Iraqi people, as a worthy cause in which they feel closely involved. It compensates for their negative image in France. Ali, 27, proudly says: They are my Muslim brothers. Like many other Muslims, Ali voted for one of the Trotskyist presidential candidates, explaining: Jospin is a Zionist (7).

Boosted by Islamist sympathy, which is very strong on the estate, a large-scale movement developed as events in the Middle East unfolded. Some of the younger participants confuse Israelis and Jews and voice anti-Jewish feelings. But the overall trend is not anti- Semitic nor does it advocate an exclusively Muslim community. Azouz Begag, a sociologist, believes that most of these newcomers to politics simply want to be left in peace. He says: Even if some put an Islamist gloss on their demands, it would be wrong to claim they want to retreat into some isolated community. French people of North African origin favour integration. The large number of mixed marriages shows that (8).

The Jospin government suffered from this new radical stance. The beurs claim that the government used them, while failing to highlight the violence, discrimination and exclusion they endure. A rift has opened between them and the Socialist party (PS). They believe it lacked conviction on issues such as asylum seekers and voting rights for immigrants.

They have crossed a psychological barrier. The voting patterns of second-generation immigrants are increasingly similar to the national average, a sign of growing integration. Abdel Kader Belbahri, a sociologist at Saint Etienne university, emphasises: The massive support for Chirac among leftwing voters ended a taboo among many immigrants against voting for the right. They blame the socialist government for having been too soft on Israel, but they also feel it ignored problems in the big estates. And they think the left prevented second-generation immigrants from entering the political arena. It was clear Chirac had got the point when he asked Tokia Sa´fi to join the government (9).

Grigny has been a Communist party (PC) stronghold since the end of the second world war. Basma Ben Sa´d, 27 and unemployed, is a town councillor. She was elected in 1995 but condemns the mayor's electioneering: He asked me to join his team to catch the Arab vote. At the last elections (in 2001) he promised to make me a deputy, to keep me on. But afterwards, he disregarded me because of my origins. He said they would upset local people. I'm thinking of switching to the right.

Several movements that started life in outlying estates are now organising in Grigny. One of their leaders, Mohamed Ourzik, says: They tried to convince us that, as we were immigrants, we should automatically vote PS or PC, but we aren't doomed to be the underdogs forever. We are fed up with being controlled from on high. The protest movement he launched encouraged more than 400 people to register for the elections. He adds: As a group we make no distinction on the basis of origins, but we're mainly of North African origin. We want to enjoy our full rights as citizens and play an active part in society. We have proposals for education, law and order, discrimination and many other topics.

Taking this approach to its logical conclusion, a local association, France et Liens (France and Links) fielded a cross-cultural team (10) in the recent parliamentary elections. It hoped to oust the PS incumbent, Julien Dray, whose credibility had suffered after outspoken remarks on law and order. The association's main candidate, Farid Diab, a 26-year old student, explains: We feel betrayed and unrepresented. We want to become a major, long-term political force in the constituency. We don't represent any particular ethnic group. We are in favour of mixing cultures and generations.

Almost 20 years after the first campaign to assert the rights of beurs, a new generation is realising its potential strength. Will this quest for political influence last? It's just a start, says Djelloul Attig, schoolteacher and town councillor. I think our call is beginning to get a positive response.


(1) Caroline Mangez, La CitÚ qui fait peur, Albin Michel, Paris, 1999.

(2) Amar Henni and Gilles Marinet, La CitÚ hors-la-loi, Ramsay, Paris, 2002.

(3) Second-generation North African immigrants.

(4) The law separating church and state (1905) prohibits the use of religious identity or ethnic origin for statistical analysis.

(5) Norbert Elias, John L Scotson, Logiques de l'exclusion, Fayard, Paris, 1997.

(6) In May 2002, the minister of the interior authorised police to use flashball guns, which fire potentially lethal rubber bullets.

(7) Since Jospin's disastrous visit to Bir Zeit in the West Bank where he was pelted with stones.

(8) In 1999 the authorities registered 30,000 marriages between French and foreign partners, 10% of the total, compared with 5% 20 years earlier. This does not include marriages between French people of different origins (Source Ined).

(9) Tokia Sa´fi, a young beur, is secretary of state for sustainable development in the new government. She started her political career on the left, but, seeing no hope of advancement, shifted her allegiance to the centre-right.

(10) They polled 0.9% of the vote on 9 June, 10th out of 18.