Sarkozy Versus the Suburbs


To a stranger entering Bobigny for the first time, it is a friendly, ethnically diverse neighbourhood located just outside of Paris. To a Parisian who has only heard about Bobigny through the media, it is part of the notorious ’93’ suburbs, fraught with poverty, violence and drugs. The ’93’ refers to the postcode Parisian districts all begin with ’75.’

But the boundary between Paris and les banlieues (the suburbs) is marked by more than just a different postcode. Cobblestoned streets, terrace cafes and creperies are replaced by high-rise government housing, commercial shopping centres and grey buildings. But not a single torched car is in sight, despite popular belief.

In October and November 2005, riots erupted in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb north-east of Paris near Bobigny, following the death of two teenagers pursued by police. Front pages of newspapers the world over presented images of cars burning, grenades being thrown and smashed windows.

Analysts explained the situation as a reaction to the anger and desperation felt by young people living in the suburbs due to high unemployment and limited opportunities, while others described the crisis as the failure of the Muslim population to integrate into French society. Nicolas Sarkozy, who at the time was the Minister of the Interior, vehemently declared a ‘war without mercy’  on les banlieues, defending the actions of the police.

Born to a Hungarian immigrant father and a French mother, Nicolas Sarkozy entered politics early. By age 22, in 1977, he was a city councillor for Neuilly-sur-Seine. Slowly he climbed the ranks, being mentored by Jacques Chirac until Sarkozy supported Chirac’s opponent in the 1995 Presidential elections. The relationship between the two men has been tenuous ever since.

Despite being raised in one of the wealthier suburbs just outside of Paris, Sarkozy has compared his childhood experiences of foreignness with those living in les banlieues. Known for his conservative politics and presidential ambitions, Sarkozy’s tenure as Minister of the Interior focused on an increased police presence, tougher law enforcement and a denouncement of violent incidents in les banlieues.

Jump to 2007 and France’s upcoming Presidential elections, which have been touted as one of the closest political races in French history. Sarkozy is still in the picture, leading the UMP, France’s Right-of-Centre political Party. Despite a gallant fight by Socialist Segolène Royal and Centrist François Bayrou, Sarkozy is predicted to win just.

Nevertheless, an opinion poll released by the daily commuter newspaper Metro on 21 March indicated that only 29 per cent actually support Sarkozy. Another one on 4 April yielded the same result. But how much faith can we have in opinion polls? Especially when others indicate that as many as 46 per cent are undecided on who to vote for.

Over the past six months, I have been working in a high school in Bobigny. For students completing their final year, this is their first election. And what are their thoughts on Sarkozy? ‘I don’t like him,’ said one student, ‘because he doesn’t like me.’ For these young people, Sarkozy represents how they are perceived by French society and it’s not a pretty picture.

During the 2005 riots, Sarkozy controversially stated that the suburbs ‘have to be cleaned we’re going to make them as clean as a whistle.’ His political stance and proposed policies have remained relatively unchanged in the lead-up to the elections. Whether it’s by deporting the sans papiers (illegal immigrants) or making juvenile detention centres a more frequent form of punishment, it is clear that Sarkozy believes the problem lies with the individual, rather than society.

He has spoken about introducing a Marshall Plan to the suburbs, vowing to reduce unemployment and provide more training for school dropouts. As quoted in L’Express, his vision is simple:

I want young people to say to themselves, ‘It’s better to wake up early in the morning to work hard, to create a family, to have a wage, rather than to deal drugs.’

And yet, this misrepresentation causes more problems. Despite the media portraying young people living in les banlieues as angry teenagers who set fire to cars, most of them are actually quite lovely. According to them, Bobigny is a quiet suburb there are too many police around and not as many cités (ghettos) as other areas.

A Sarkozy campaign poster that was defaced by Segolène Royal supporters

When I asked a couple of high-school students what it was like to live in Paris, they retorted, ‘This isn’t Paris. This is Bobigny.’ When asked what they thought about the suburb’s bad reputation, one replied, ‘The politicians make it appear worse than it is.’ Another responded, ‘It’s like we don’t exist.’ And it’s true as highlighted by Sarkozy’s suggestion that les banlieues are nothing but a hotbed of drugs and violence.

Rather than recognise the young people who do want to wake up early, go to work and create a family, it is overwhelmingly the delinquent incidents that are reported such as the recent confrontation   between police and youths at the Parisian train station Gare du Nord.

People living in les banlieues themselves are divided. Some blame each other for the social problems, describing Sarkozy as convincing and charismatic. Others criticise the way police treat young people, while others still believe that it is the structures making up French society that are at fault. Religious and ethnic data are not collected in the name of ‘equality.’ But this lack of information leads to generalisation, discrimin
ation and inequality.

The teenagers who live in the suburbs tell me stories about growing up in the ghettos where their parents are busy and work all the time, or are depressed and unemployed. They describe scenes such as their dad coming home drunk; or not being able to study at home because their family make too much noise; or having no privacy because they have to share a bedroom with their siblings. So, when you have no role models at home, and you spend most of your time at school, and the rest of Paris pretends you don’t exist, who do you talk to?

The lack of representation of young people in the suburbs inspired a Swiss magazine, l’Hebdo, to train up a group of kids living in Bondy, one of the ’93’ suburbs, giving them journalism skills and the opportunity to blog about their ideas, experiences and lives. Finally, young people were able to tell their stories and have a dialogue with their readers, without the manipulations of the media. Previous bloggers have now gone off to journalism school, while others are still in les banlieues, unable to find a job despite all their training and efforts. Sarkozy would be disappointed.

‘If Sarkozy wins the elections, I’ll go to Australia with you,’ joked one student. The overriding factor that made students decide whether or not they like Sarkozy is their own personal view of immigration in France and how they feel about Sarkozy’s proposed immigration laws. Some of their judgments are based on the 2005 riots whether they knew people involved, whether they were scared when they saw a car burning, or whether they themselves have ever been discriminated against based on colour, religion or race.

Sarkozy’s unyielding protection of the police was another contentious issue. When discussing the deaths of the two teenagers which sparked the riots, three students explained that it was because the police would not admit it was their fault. ‘Police will criticise young people,’ they say, ‘but they will not criticise themselves.’

Like the rest of France, young people in the suburbs don’t have much faith in any of the candidates. ‘They’re pretty much the same,’ said most students, ‘none of them offer a solution for les banlieues.’ Ségolène Royal is supported in the suburbs because she is seen to be ‘on their side,’ rather than giving people confidence that she can make things better. Feelings toward François Bayrou are more ambivalent some students like him because he’s neither too Left nor too Right, while others don’t trust him because they don’t know what he stands for.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, representing the extreme Right, is disliked by all.

According to one of my students, Sarkozy doesn’t listen to the people in les banlieues. And what do the people in les banlieues want? Her response was simply, ‘We want help.’

Sometimes it’s easy to stay in a bubble, believing what the media says about the suburbs. Having worked in Bobigny over the past six months, I’m glad I get to go there and see it for myself, to get to know the kids who live there. Some are incredibly enthusiastic, savvy and hard working others already feel defeated by the world. And yet, all of them have something interesting to say, if given the chance.

Described by the media as an ‘action’ man, only time will tell whether France chooses Sarkozy to take action and more importantly, whether he will act appropriately.

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