When we finally got to Saint-Denis, the final destination on Metro line 13, the children rejoiced with “hallelujah, hallelujah.” Perhaps ironically, the opposite end of the line includes the chic commercial and nightlife district of Champs-Élysées–Clemenceau. Yet, the children’s hallelujah struck me because it was the first time “Saint-Denis” wasn’t followed by “why do you want to go there?” I heard over and over again from the French that the problems faced by North Africans and other immigrant groups living in the banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris, were not the result of racism. The problem could not be compared to redlining in the United States, because “the French are just not racist”.
I was shocked to be met with the gripping reality that the victims of a hushed system of racism, religious intolerance, poverty, inequality, and injustice were all concentrated in the outskirts of Paris where “the French” do not go and do not have to come to terms with the realities of the social situation in their country.
Despite their legal French citizenship, many second- and third-generation North Africans live in overcrowded tenements with their parents and new migrants of Arab or sub-Saharan African origin. They are palpably isolated from mainstream French society. One of the most easily identifiable causes of this is the lack of convenient transportation between the suburbs and city center, which makes finding a job exceedingly difficult. I had to take two separate above-ground trains to get to this Saint-Denis and an above-ground train and two buses to get to Clichy-sous-Bois, the site of major uprisings in 2005 by French youth of North African origin after alleged police profiling led to the death of two teens. When second- and third-generation North Africans do reach the center of the city, the French and the police take notice. I watched as the French police pulled a North African man, presumably coming from the suburbs, up against the wall inside the subway station and patted him down. It was humiliating. As one British tourist astutely noted aloud on the subway, “They profile here.” Isabelle Gillette-Faye, a French sociologist and Director of La federation GAMS, an organization dedicated to the fight against female genital mutilations, forced marriages, and violence against women says “people watch [he North Africans and their children] like strangers,” which makes it difficult for them to find jobs or housing.
The association between Islam and the North African population has also allowed new ways to marginalize the population as a threat to French society. The rise of Islamophobia has pushed candidates on the far-right such as Marine Le Pen to focus on immigration policy by painting North African Muslims as incompatible with the French Republic. Sakina, a Moroccan high school student living in Clichy-sous-Bois told me the French do not accept the growing establishment of halal meat in fast-food restaurants. Sakina’s friend Samira agreed, calling the French “hypocrites” and “egoists”. Gillette-Faye said that the French are unwilling to accept that Islam has become the second religion of France. There is a very strong conviction of what it means to be French in France. “They pray in the streets, why do they do that?” That is not French. Public expressions of religion are not French.
Most North African youth, however, are not concerned with politics of religion. The biggest problems they suffer are far beyond the scope of freedom of religious expression. Crime, violence (especially against women), drug abuse, and poverty are just a few of the problems that plague inhabitants of the suburbs rejected and alienated by French society. “The police do not go there,” I was told several times in reference to Saint-Denis. Lamia, an inhabitant of Saint-Denis who moved from Algeria to live with her French husband, works as a housekeeper for a family in Paris (she does not include Saint-Denis in her definition of Paris). Lamia explained that despite the fact that she must wear her bag across her chest (comparing it to the way I hold my bag on my shoulder), to avoid robbery, she still prefers her suburb to Paris. She adds that despite the superior infrastructure in Paris, she enjoys the environment of Saint-Denis, where she can be free from racism. Gillette-Faye says, “Racism [in France] increases every day,” but denying the existence of this ongoing problem is “typically French”.
The French see their colonial history as a great shame and rightly so, but to deny history does not mean the outcomes of that history will just disappear. The Republic does not cater to the values of its entire population nor does it really recognize all the populations that make up the Republic. To say that the problem is simply one of rich vs. poor or North African Muslims not being compatible with the French way of life is to not understand the depth of French history and “French culture” in its entirety. Ignoring the realities of the existing situation limits the potential for progress in the future.
Shazmin Hirji ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.