x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Battle for the banlieues

When a gang opened fire on police in a Paris suburb, the controversy on France's housing estates was reignited.

A burnt-out car next to the infamous housing project Quatre Mille in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, where immigrants have clashed with police.
A burnt-out car next to the infamous housing project Quatre Mille in the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, where immigrants have clashed with police.

LA COURNEUVE, FRANCE // A short Metro journey from the grand boulevards of Paris, the calm of a suburban street is interrupted only by elegant strains of Chopin drifting from the windows of a branch of France's eminent music college, the Conservatoire National.

As young people carrying instrument cases arrive for practice, it is hard to equate the picture of studiousness and serenity with recent television images of La Courneuve. For the name has become synonymous with the lawlessness common to the bleakest of the banlieues - little towns with large immigrant populations - dotted around the outer rim of Paris. The heart of La Courneuve has many such surprises: a gleaming sports centre, new eye-catching housing projects and the shrubs and flowers that have put the town in the top 100 in a France-in-bloom contest. On the exterior wall of an annex of the Hotel de Ville, the townhall,a giant banner has a multiethnic montage, each face belonging to a La Courneuve resident, presented as "the future of France".

But La Courneuve is better known for the infamous Quatre Mille estate, a hideous warren of relatively low-rise blocks of flats where, three weeks ago, gangsters launched an ambush on a police van, opening fire with an AK-47. It was the first time such an arme de guerre had been used in criminal activity in France. The attack, a failed attempt to free a suspected drug dealer, led to fierce exchanges between Left-wing civic leaders in La Courneuve and the centre-Right government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

When the Communist mayor insisted after the May 17 ambush that the Quatre Mille - a failed experimental 1960s housing project providing 4,000 homes for low-income families - should not be labelled a supermarket for firearms, the steely interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, retorted that it was a supermarket for drugs and promised "no mercy" for traffickers. Amid the rhetoric, the town council is taking the government to court alleging systematic discrimination on jobs, education and housing. Signs proclaiming the decision to lodge a formal complaint are all over the town.

It was here, four years ago, that Mr Sarkozy, then the interior minister, a role popularly characterised as "No 1 cop", talked of using a Kärcher - high-pressure industrial cleaner - to rid the Quatre Mille of its criminals. Mr Sarkozy prides himself on being tough on crime. In response to disturbing rises in delinquency, on the streets and also in schools over the past three months, he ordered a series of measures intended to restore order.

Riot police and specialist squads of gendarmes will concentrate operations in 25 areas, with increased manpower allocated to the Seine-Saint-Denis department of which La Courneuve is a part. "I am absolutely determined to take all steps necessary to ensure the figures of the last three months are accidental," Mr Sarkozy told an audience of senior officers and magistrates at the Elysée nine days ago. "No street, no basement, no stairwell should be abandoned to criminals. We will not let these greedy little thugs persecute brave and honest working people."

Far from feeling collective guilt, the people who run La Courneuve are bitter and defiant. It is clear that while most people deplore the activities of gangs, there is little sympathy for the police. Mimouna Hadjam, the founder of Quatre Mille's Africa association, detects a "deep malaise" among the young. "When asked their nationality, they respond Mauritania, Mali and Algeria," she said during a discussion a few months ago. "For them, being French is not a nationality, French means white."

Fadila Hamzaouili, born in France to an Algerian father, agrees with another of Ms Hadjam's arguments, that young people's experience of the police does not breed respect "even though the majority of us have nothing to do with the gangs". Ms Hamzaouili studied international relations and wants to work in aid projects, but cannot find a job. "I have encountered discrimination, even when I was trying for work experience," she said. "Employers see you are from La Courneuve and Seine-Saint-Denis and because of the bad image, they don't want to know. It's a false media stereotype because you never hear anything positive about the place."

The mayor, Gilles Poux, told The National that strong words about targeting criminals solved nothing unless the government also committed resources to the provision of community-based policing and a strategy to tackle poverty, inadequate education and unemployment. Didier Muller is the president of La Courneuve's Faites la Ville group, which works with public and private money to organise events and projects for some of the poorest families in France.

But if Faites la Ville represents the positive face of daily life, Mr Muller, the nephew of a leading member of the wartime French Resistance, makes no attempt to play down the menace from crime. On France Observers, an initiative by the France 24 television channel to encourage comment on topical issues, he said: "The violence is clearly escalating. We've gone past the point of knife fights. Let's hope it stops here.

"While many other areas of France have black markets, we don't understand how they manage to get hold of the kind of weapons they do here." But he insists that however diverse their backgrounds, people were able to live side by side in peace. "La Courneuve is not Chicago." There is mounting concern in France at the use of guns in a number in incidents in other banlieues since rioting swept the country in late 2005. Several officers were wounded by gunfire in attacks, also described as ambushes, in Grigny in February and Les Mureaux in March.

Eric Wernert, 34, a police officer whose area of operation includes La Courneuve, told France Observers of the despair ordinary officers were facing. "We've run out of ideas, we've hit rock bottom - that's what we're saying to each other. "It's no longer a problem of urban violence, we're talking about organised crime now. This attack has taken things a step further in terms of violence. Some of us are asking ourselves whether it's worth getting fired at by AK-47s for a salary of ?1,600 (US$2,268 Dh8,365) a month."

A key problem is that factory closures mean the jobs that attracted earlier generations no longer exist. La Courneuve, historically a country retreat for Parisian nobility, experienced rapid growth in the 1960s as immigrant workers streamed into France from its former colonies in North and West Africa. Some 90 nationalities figure among the population of 37,000. Unemployment, at 12.8 per cent, was already twice the regional level when the global financial crisis began. The average household's monthly income is just ?1,130, a third lower than the national level.

Mr Muller says the discrimination facing people in La Courneuve is a national disgrace. "If you are called Mohammed or Mamadou, you already have a lot less chance of employment than if your name is Gilles or Jean. If you pass your baccalauréat [higher school certificate] and want to go to university, the words La Courneuve on your application mark you down straight away as suspect." His vice president, Didier Broch, agrees. He cites the case of a young man of African origin from Quatre Mille who took a string of menial jobs to help finance his studies. Now well qualified as an engineer, he has sent his CV to 700 prospective employers without one response. "It is intolerable," said Mr Broch.

"No one here denies that there is a problem of violence. But out of our population, we are talking about maybe 50 people. Their identities are known by heart at the prefecture of police. As the mayor has said, let us all go together to arrest them so the other 36,950 people who want better things can get on with their lives in peace." crandall@thenational.ae