Can there ever be racial harmony in France?
Youths rioting in a western Paris suburb. Credit: Franck Prevel / Getty   

Twenty years ago a brown, white and black French national won the World Cup, in France, and solved the country’s racial problems overnight.

Or not, as it turned out.

Four years after the win, in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s appeals to the racial fears of white voters carried him into the second round of the French presidential election. In October 2005, the country was convulsed by three weeks of anti-police riots in the multi-racial ‘banlieues’ – suburbs – of every city and large town in the country.

The pattern of the last two decades – hopes of racial harmony raised by sport and contradicted by stubborn reality – threatens to repeat itself this summer

These ‘banlieues’, long a source of cosmic dread to white France, have since become associated with Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan, Nice and the 1,000 or more young French people who volunteered to serve Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

The pattern of the last two decades – hopes of racial harmony raised by sport and contradicted by stubborn reality – threatens to repeat itself this summer as another wonderful, brown, white and black French football team graces the World Cup in Russia. Eight members of this French squad, which has briefly united a racially and socially divided nation were brought up in the Paris suburbs where the 2005 riots began.

The ‘banlieue problem’, a synonym for France’s race problem, has been one that all French presidents since 2005 have promised to solve

On Friday, just like in 1998, multi-racial crowds from those suburbs invaded the boulevards and avenues of Paris to celebrate the team’s progress to the semi-finals. And yet last week there were also four nights of anti-police riots in the multi-racial suburbs of Nantes, birthplace of Jules Verne and one of the most quietly attractive of French cities.

These explosions of car-burning and attacks on public buildings in retaliation for alleged police brutality remain commonplace. The Islamist threat also persists. French security services revealed last month that they had thwarted half a dozen plans by Isis old boys or their sympathisers to commit fresh atrocities on French soil.

The ‘banlieue problem’, a synonym for France’s race problem, has been one that all French presidents since 2005 have promised to solve. Jacques Chirac and François  Hollande tried to do it with modest amounts of money, Nicolas Sarkozy with a “Karcher” or high-powered hose. None succeeded.

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The crime and drug problems are getting worse; unemployment, over 20 per cent among the young in the Paris banlieues, has hardly moved; the spread of militant Islamic teaching, not yet a serious issue in 2005, has undermined parents and community leaders and eroded the always limited sympathy of urban and posh-suburban France for the scary world beyond the “Boulevard Périphérique”.

The banlieues are an archipelago of mostly high-rise housing estates thrown up around all French cities in the 1960s and 1970s to provide homes for migrants from North Africa, from the French overseas departments, from former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa but also from southern and eastern Europe and from rural France. They are almost always outside the city boundaries, with Marseille a notable exception.  The ‘inner city’ problems of other countries are ‘suburban problems’ in France and were, for many years, all the more easily ignored.

Much has changed in the banlieues since the 2005 riots – arguably for the worse

They were not, however, mono-racial ghettoes in the US or even the British sense. I met gangs of youths in the 1990s and 2000’s whose parents or grandparents were Algerians, Yugoslavs, Portuguese, Ivoirians and working class white French. This was, essentially, the racial profile of the mobs which burned cars and schools in the autumn of 2005.

This was also the racial profile of the France team that won the 1998 World Cup. The brightest star of this year’s team, Kylian Mbappé, from Bondy just north of the Paris city boundary, is also a product of this once racially integrated character of the “banlieues”. He was born, in December 1998, to an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father.

But much has changed in the banlieues since the 2005 riots – arguably for the worse.

Over the past decade, radical Islam has been offering an alternative ‘identity’ to disenchanted youths with muslim backgrounds. This has created new barriers and animosities between races and religions in the banlieues. Life for women has become more oppressive. Many cités (tower-block estates) have become mono-ethnic. White French or eastern or southern Europeans have become segregated from people of north African and African origin.

The dreaded banlieues have much to offer France so long as they can be persuaded – along with the rest of the country – that they are part of France

France would officially deny the existence of racial or religious ‘communities’ or even different races. For years French politicians dismissed Britain’s more relaxed, ‘multi-cultural’ policy as dangerous. In truth, neither approach has prevented the spread of extremist Islam.  Nor has it been much help to those trying to escape the suburbs.

The indivisible, we-are-all-French approach, conceals tenacious prejudices and barriers. In France, a recent study found, a young person with an Arab or African name is four times less likely to be interviewed for a job. Brown or black faces are finally beginning to be seen in presenting roles on French TV but much less so than in Britain. There have been several leading ministers in recent years from Arab or French west Indian backgrounds but there are none in senior positions under Macron.

This is not just to France’s discredit but also to its loss. The banlieues, in my experience, can be terrible, violent, destructive places. But they are also an immense reservoir of creativity, talent, energy, hard-work and tenacity – and not just in the visible fields of football and French rap music.

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Might the new President make a difference? During and after his successful election campaign last year, Emmanuel Macron promised a “new approach”. He said that the solution to the banlieue problem is indistinguishable from his solution to the wider “French problem”: the breaking down of the corporatist barriers which make France a comfortable country for “insiders” but a miserable place for “outsiders” and especially racial minorities and the young. He may be right about that.

In May, the former centre-right economics minister, Jean-Louis Borloo presented a much-delayed plan for a 50bn euro project to rescue the banlieues. He made 19 proposals, including short-circuiting bureaucratic delays to speed new transport projects and to replace the worst of the old schools and tower blocks.

He suggested the creation of a new “corps” of French senior civil servants to supervise the resurgence of the suburbs, recruited from the cleverest kids in the banlieues themselves. He proposed the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs, ranging from sports coaches to care workers.

Macron cherry-picked a few of the ideas but dismissed the approach as “old thinking”. The plan, he said, was just another top-down, bureaucratic exercise in which well-meaning “white males” imposed solutions on a disenchanted, young and racially heterogeneous population. He may have had a point.

His critics say that he did not want to spend the money or annoy the right-wing section of his electoral coalition or anger rural France, which would rather like a 50bn euro Marshall Plan of its own. They probably also had a point.

The President’s decision was, though, heavily influenced by his controversial special adviser on racial and banlieues issues, a comedian turned political polemicist called Yassine Belattar.

Macron’s drive to make it easier to hire and fire in France – against the will of some of the big trades union federations – is already spawning new opportunities for young people in the banlieues

Mr Belattar has been attacked in the French press for suggesting that there is no real problem with radical Islam in France. His argument is in fact more subtle. He says that militant islam exploits a vacuum of identity and purpose among the poor-suburban second and third generation migrants. Such kids are, he says, more French than they realise and more French than urban and rural France is willing to acknowledge. Enforcing a narrow, traditional sense of French identity pushes them towards the extremists and criminal gangs. Instead, Mr Belattar says, the banlieue kids should be encouraged to channel their energies into creativity and entrepreneurship.

This may sound hopelessly vague and optimistic when one considers how much a 17-year-old youth can make from selling cocaine. However, Macron’s drive to make it easier to hire and fire in France – against the will of some of the big trades union federations – is already spawning new opportunities for young people in the banlieues. (Sunday opening of shops; new inter-city bus-routes; more taxi drivers and chauffeurs.)

But there can be no quick fix for a problem which has been 60 years in the making. Some of Mr Borloo’s 50 billion euros would doubtless be handy. But Mr Belattar is right. The solution, if any, is spiritual and psychological as much as political or economic.

The dreaded banlieues have much to offer France so long as they can be persuaded – along with the rest of the country – that they are part of France. There is no reason that they should be solely a breeding ground for footballing talent, terrorists and drugs-traffickers.

The fact that banlieue youths identify with a France football team and wave the tricolour on the Grands Boulevard or the Champs Elysées is significant. It remains to be seen whether the Mbappé generation will be more successful than the Zidane generation in finally bridging the moat of suspicion and ignorance which separates France’s lovely old cities from their ugly, violent, dynamic inner suburbs.

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