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Battle Over the Banlieues

by wchurchill Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 04:17:00 AM EST

The New York Times, normally considered slightly left of center in its opinion and coverage, presents a rather stark view of the racial situation in France in its Sunday coverage of the French Presidential Election:

Unwelcome Mat One of the many housing projects, or cités, that fill the suburbs throughout France, alienate their working-class residents and fuel the debate over French egalité. This one, the Pablo Picasso, is in Nanterre, west of Paris.
I'm surprised at the choice of photos shown to lead the story, because the picture of the Pablo Picasso in Nanterre is so reminiscent of US housing projects of the '60's, now considered failures and most of which are being changed.  IMO the picture attempts to give the American reader an unfairly negative picture of the banlieu by comparing it to those discredited American housing projects.

While the article points the finger of blame at the conservative party, and Sarkozy in particular

"If I could get my hands on Sarkozy, I'd kill him." I had asked Mamadou, a wiry young man wearing gray camouflage pants and a tank top, what he thought of France's former minister of the interior, who is also the right's standard-bearer in this spring's presidential elections.
, it paints an unfairly racist view of France in general:
Many residents of the cités, even those who condemned the violence, insisted that given the conditions that existed there and the brutality and racism of the police, an explosion was inevitable. And even the political establishment in France, up to and including Sarkozy, concedes that racism in employment is endemic in the country. There are data that seem to demonstrate that if your name is Mohammed or Fatima, you have less than 50 percent of the chance of being hired than you do if your name is Jean or Marie. The French Republic may proclaim its commitment to equal opportunity, but few French people believe it to be genuine.
I would not have been surprised to see this presentation in the Washington Times, for example, but this slant was a little surprising in the NY Times.

As I read, or try to read, the French news on the election, I don't see this emphasis on the issue of racism.  I'm imagining there is a disconnect between the french electorate, and the way this is being presented in the Anglo-American press.  But looking forward to any clarification from those that really understand the French election.


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Why are you asking for clarifications? Apparently you already know that the NYT article is "slanted" and "unfair" (I'm quoting your words).

So. You're right. It's slanted and unfair. Not because of the detailed picture (why are you surprised at cités that look like US housing projects? I've used the comparison myself here on ET a number of times. Or, haven't we said here that there is racial discrimination in the French job market, for example?), but because, overall, the right-wing push Sarkozy has given the election campaign here gives the English-language media the opportunity to pursue one of their favourite French-bashing themes, according to which France is a dismally racist country beset by conflict with "immigrant youth" yada yada yada.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 06:34:58 AM EST
hopefully you saw my response to Metavision below.
by wchurchill on Tue Apr 17th, 2007 at 03:36:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey, those towers are a couple hundred meters from where I work, as seen in this google map. In short, they are very close from Paris' CBD, and aren't exactly lousy nor dangerous - I have distant relatives there.

As for the general "immigration" problem, the reality is that of social, not racial, segregation. The HLM were built in concentrated bunchs in the 60's and 70's, and are now very homogeneous socially- with only the lower end of the social ladder. Which happens to have a larger proportion of immigrants than the rest of France.

LePen, systematically, and right wing politicians, sporadically, have made a link between the violence that comes from these poor districts - that always come from poor urban districts - and immigration. Chirac had been propping this link in the 80's and 90's, Sarkozy is doing the same thing during this campaign.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 07:14:49 AM EST
Of course, how does having the name "Mohammed or Fatima" effect your chances of employment - or of being placed arbitrarily on a no fly list, of having your email intercepted, or of being declared an enemy combatant -- in the United States?
by desmoulins (gsb6@lycos.com) on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 09:59:34 AM EST
Oy. Thanks wchurchill for linking to the story but this is another sad example of what has happened to foreign journalism in the United States -- a reporter without deep knowledge of the country or the election jets in a few times, finds a few colorful but unrepresentative people to speak, and imposes analysis from elsewhere. I lost count at five of the significant errors but the most egregious that I recall are

"français de souche ...whose ancestors have been in France for centuries." For 20 years, historians and sociologists like Noiriel and Weil have demonstrated that only a very small %, probably 20% at most, "have been in France" since the early 1800s and even if that is what he meant (although it appears he meant white), the concept of a biological basis for nationality is something that would be scandalous if applied, for instance, to the United States. But its an easy opposition, white vs immigrant, so the reporter adopts it and the editors don't blink an eye.

"all great European cities these days are filled with immigrants" -- enough of Eurabia. This is true, see above, but what the author really means of course is that there sure are a lot more people who aren't white than there used to be. European cities have been filled with "immigrants" for thousands of years; over half the population in Paris in 1775 when presumably it was all français de souche migrated from other regions and city governments in European cities had, "for centuries," pursued policies of trying to exclude them from establishing residence. Whats new are not the immigrants; its the identification of "immigrant" with "non-white," since the 1970s.

"young rioters at the Garde du Nord." Read any news story or watch any tv news report from that week (and there was lots of video taken) -- what was significant about that incident is that the crowd was composed of a wide sociological and racial range of commuters, all equally shocked by the violent and menacing behavior of the CRS. That it was only black and beur kids who were arrested tells us a lot more about what the CRS looks for when they get worked up than about who was outraged at the Gare du Nord.

"verlain" as spoken in "banlieus." No its been slang in French collèges (middle schoools) for at least 30 years, probably much longer. The author probably had to have "beur" explained to him, and presumed from there that "real French" people don't speak that way.

"the base of support for Le Pen, are single-issue voters..." If the "dean of French pollsters" thinks so, it may be why the polls consistently are so wrong. As I posted on another thread, and as several books including Wolfram and Physh demonstrate, its been almost two decades since LePen stopped emphasizing "France aux francais" and "preference nationale" and moved on to a much broader, much more demagogic (but also much subtler) discourse -- in part because his incorrect and racist presuppositions, such as "français de souche" versus "immigrés" are so widely ingrained in the minds of people like David Rieff.

by desmoulins (gsb6@lycos.com) on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 10:42:49 AM EST
Why do I sense of whiff of something indirect in  these last two diaries?  Nothing new, just some selective rubbing-in...

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 12:17:23 PM EST
I really would like to see more discussion and more diaries on the French election.  I'm very interested in the developments, in what issues are getting to the top, in how the candidates react to each other.  

The French political system is for me very different.  I obviously understand the US system and, also, the British style parliamentary system.  But the French system is different for me, and therefore interesting and exciting.  This runoff feature has a lot of implications that I perhaps understand to some extent, but don't at all understand the nuances.  and that is just one aspect that makes this election so interesting.  another is that it would seem to be key to France, and very important to Europe.  so I would like more.

Unfortunately my French is not good enough to follow this in the French papers, though I do read some of it.  That I know is where I can fill this void, but it doesn't work well for me.

so you are right I have an agenda with these two diaries, though not the rubbing in idea.  I had planned on doing something on the economics, but Jerome seemed to start that with his recent front pager on the Economist.

So yes!!  More diaries and more discussion, please!!

by wchurchill on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 01:52:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Housing projects - or the provision of cheaper, smaller accommodation for many, in a limited space, is as much an architectural problem as any other.

Many architects, in my experience, have the same disconnect from social realities as gamers who become fighter pilots _ they fail to make the transition from the inconsequential to the consequential.

I'd go as far as to say that many architects think that people should adapt to their buildings rather than the other way round. Stuart Brand did a fascinating documentary about architecture: he visited scores of 20th C notable buildings and asked a simple question, "How many times since the inauguration of the building have the architects revisited to learn how their building is used, and in what way the design might have been improved?". 99% had never officially revisited.

Architecture is not about edifices, it is about people in spaces and how they might behave. That is about as aesthetic as you can get ;-)

I don't have a problem with the concept of banlieues - they were a cost efficient short-term solution to a social problem. The problem I have is with the architects, because I don't think it is impossible to provide dense housing AND the kind of amenities that turn a huge bunch of neighbours into a community. Yes, it will be a little more expensive in the short term - but hugely (socially) cost-effective in the longer term.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 04:11:37 PM EST
Just an FYI, Rieff, son of the idiosyncratic conservative philosopher Phillip Rieff and the left wing intellectual Susan Sontag, was educated in French in the NYC Lycee Francais, and is quite familiar with France and Europe in general. He is neither a neolib nor a neocon, though he was a liberal hawk in the nineties, moving away from that starting at the very end of the nineties in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, to become one of the more prominent critics of those paradigms, even in their most toned down form. We are the World offers a nice taste of his current views.
by MarekNYC on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 04:26:37 PM EST
NYC Lycee Francais,...

That could be where he learned to use "français de souche" without  batting an eye. He might have studied Lafontaine in school but there's no excuse for giving in to such shoddy thinking -- the idea of opposing "français de souche" to "immigrants" is one that has no political, moral, historical, or (if you insist on thinking this way) genetic basis in reality. Its merely who shares fantasy of "true France" put forth by Barrès and taken by LePen

by desmoulins (gsb6@lycos.com) on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 05:30:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Arguably the term 'francais de souche' is so loaded it shouldn't be used, but nobody could believe that the opposition has no 'basis in reality'. Communities are what they and/or others believe them to be. As long as substantial segments of French society see things this way, those communities will be reality. And as your reference to Barres shows, it is a longstanding reality.

I have no idea how to describe Rieff's politics - they don't fit into any category around in the US today. In foreign policy a mix of paleo-con and minimalist realism with a a few leftover traces of his old liberalism? I've seen a lot less of his views on domestic policy, but I get a feeling of a profound cynicism and pessimism above everything else.

by MarekNYC on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 06:46:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Communities can only exist if their supposed members believe they are part of the generally described community. As an example, recent black immigrants in the US seem to have more economic success than those that have been there for a long time (see Obama...), possibly because they do not feel as much part of the historical black communities.

In France, the strong community linked to that of the projects, mostly geographical rather than racial. See Kassovitz' La Haine for an example : the three out-of-the-projects heroes are a black, an arab, and a jew.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sun Apr 15th, 2007 at 07:10:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They can also exist if others think of them that way. Plus I think you are wrong to believe that the ethno-racial sense of community doesn't exist in France. Which isn't to say that the various other identities - geographic, class, and plain old French aren't there. Multiple identities can exist, in fact are the norm.

PS - Citing a political work of fiction isn't necessarily the best evidence since it reflects the vision and agenda of the creator, however, note that in the film the three characters in addition to being poor project dwellers, are all ethnic/racial minority children of at best semi-assimilated immigrant parents.

by MarekNYC on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 04:47:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There are some ethno-racial communities in France. Armenians, Corsicans, Turks, Correzians :). What I'm saying is that they are not associated most strongly with what is happening in the suburbs. It's more of an identity created by common destiny - not class as there is little class consciousness and is clearly related to youth (a few of those rioting youth will end up in real criminal careers, most will settle down and never really revolt again) and lack of hopes (the schools in the projects don't offer much hopes of social progression). They do not want to change society as much as being allowed to join in.

Thus insisting on "immigrants" helps the xenophobic talking points of Sarko and Le Pen, and is not really grounded in reality. In fact, during the riots, the projects in the north also rioted - but there the poor people weren't from immigrant parents.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 07:13:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rieff's (personal) politics have nothing to do with the fact that he is swimming here with the tide of Eng-lang media portrayal of France as a racist, chaotic country.

Since he recounts meetings with people, one assumes he speaks French. Any number of Paris correspondents of major outlets can do that, yet examples of poor understanding of France and repetition of conventional wisdom abound in their work. Rare are the journalists whose individual qualities and knowledge of their subject show through. Most just churn out yet another footnote in one of the chapters of the prevailing narrative. I don't see what Rieff is doing in this article, other than that.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 01:13:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The argument most often used by the right wing to say that it does not matter that the media is owned by rightwing oligarchs or big corporations often linked to power (by being major government contractors) is that "most journalists are lefties", thus creating a balance.

The fact is that most journalists try to strip out their supposed personal leanings (often to the point of exageration), whereas owners very blatantly push their agendas without feeling the need to create any balance. The result are cowed or willing journalists leaning right.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 10:03:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think that they might matter - i.e. that what you are seeing here is not exactly the standard narrative but rather the same sort of thing a cynical observer could write of the old Republican 'southern strategy' - a right wing candidate, complete with his own neocons, playing on racism, fear of crime on one side, and alienated, angry, and impoverished minorities in the projects. Or at least that's what I see when, knowing Rieff's politics, I look at the article closely. Most readers here seem to have assumed the standard American neolib viewpoint and given that assumption understandably saw the standard US narrative of contemporary France.
by MarekNYC on Mon Apr 16th, 2007 at 04:38:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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