Pubdate: Wed, 09 Nov 2005
Source: Gadsden Times, The (AL)
Copyright: 2005 The Gadsden Times
Author: Craig S. Smith, New York Times


EVRY, France, Nov. 8 - Amin Kouidri, 20, has been hunting for a job 
for more than two years now and spends his days drifting around a 
government housing project here under the watchful gaze of France's 
national police.

He and his neighbors in one of France's now-notorious housing 
projects say that they feel cut off from French society, a result of 
a process of segregation lasting for decades, and that alienation and 
pressure from the police have now exploded in rage across the country.

"There's nothing to do, and frustrations have added up until in the 
end it has become like a bomb that they carry inside," said Azzouz 
Camen, 44, at a small snack bar he owns between the neighborhood's 
apartment blocks and a gleaming new mosque.

For these men, the violence that has swept the country is easy to 
understand, even, they say, long overdue, not only because of the 
unemployment but because of the increasing confrontation with the police.

On Tuesday, after two weeks of violence, the government declared a 
state of emergency, imposing curfews on numerous trouble spots. [Page A12.]

Mr. Kouidri, his short hair swept forward with gel, was born here to 
North African immigrants and educated in French schools. He trained 
as a pastry chef and has been seeking work steadily to no avail.

"If you don't have a job, you get into drugs, you get into trouble," 
he said, nursing a cup of tea in the chilly air outside Mr. Camen's 
snack bar in this southern Paris suburb.

Others turn to religion, a trend that has worried many officials even 
as it reassures an older generation of immigrants who have seen their 
children stray.

"People need to hang on to something," Mr. Camen said. At prayer 
time, a steady stream of men pass his snack bar on the way to the mosque.

But the focus on religion has added to the tension. Fears of Islamic 
extremism and the terrorism it sometimes breeds have increased the 
mistrust between traditional French society and the immigrant 
neighborhoods, particularly after a spate of bombings in the 1990's 
and the terrorist violence of the past few years. People in the 
projects say this has increased the pressure from the police.

"If you practice your religion, you're dangerous, if you don't drink 
alcohol, you're dangerous," said a man at the snack bar who would 
only give his name as Mohammed.

The police circle the apartment blocks in their cars or sit at the 
two roads that lead in and out of the sprawling neighborhood, 
periodically stopping and searching - and angering - the men they 
see. Worse, said Mohammed and others, is when the police appear in riot gear.

"At dusk, they put on their helmets and as soon as they do that the 
kids say, great, there's going to be a party tonight," Mohammed said. 
He said an often destructive game of cat-and-mouse has ensued.

In other projects, the story is the same.

"They come to provoke us," said a 22-year-old man named Sofiane in 
the Franc-Moisin projects north of Paris, claiming that the police 
plant drugs on young men suspected of being dealers. "They arrest us 
for nothing."

His brother, Nassin, was quick to admit that violence is often the 
response. He claimed that he set off a small bomb outside the 
prefecture's police station after his brother was arrested a few 
months ago. "It's not unemployment, it's the police," he said.

The projects were built in the 1960's as part of a postwar urban 
planning dream: modern blocks of tidy apartments surrounding lawns 
and playgrounds, social centers and stores. They drew people from 
cramped, old houses in the provinces and cramped, old tenements in 
the city. When immigrants began arriving in the 1960's, they moved 
into the subsidized housing, too. Residents describe the early days 
as full of optimism and hope.

"Everyone had work and lived with the expectation that their children 
would have better jobs than their parents," said Harlem Desir, a son 
of an immigrant from Martinique who grew up in a housing project in 
Bagneux, north of Paris.

Working-class French and working-class immigrants lived side by side 
in the buildings. Education was free and all of the children were 
taught the catechism of France's republican ideal: that under the 
French state, they enjoyed liberty, fraternity and equality. The 
reality of discrimination was something they learned on their own.

"You're French on your identity card, French to pay taxes and to go 
into the army, but for the rest, you're an Arab," said Hassan 
Marouni, 38, who came to France from his native Morocco with his 
parents 30 years ago. He said he had only been able to find temporary 
factory jobs and is currently unemployed.

Most of the native French moved out of the projects in a 1980's 
government-sponsored home-buying program. Few immigrant families 
could afford to participate and most were left behind. As the first 
wave of French-born children of immigrants came of age, they realized 
that the opportunities afforded them fell far short of those enjoyed 
by their native French friends.

Delinquency flourished in the now predominantly immigrant 
neighborhoods, and the police cracked down. That led to a summer of 
rioting in 1983 similar to the current unrest, but on a smaller scale.

Mr. Desir emerged as a leader from that unrest and helped organize a 
march for equal rights that started in the immigrant neighborhoods 
outside Lyon and ended in Paris.

The press dubbed it the March of the Beurs, using the immigrants' 
slang word for Arab, and France's left-leaning intelligentsia 
embraced the cause, seeing in it an echo of the United States' civil 
rights movement. President Francois Mitterrand received some of the 
marchers at Elysee Palace and euphoria swept through the country's 
children of immigrants. They had stood up and been heard.

But little happened after that. Mr. Desir and others said the housing 
projects were repainted, elevators fixed and social workers assigned 
to help guide the young. The government helped Mr. Desir establish a 
discrimination watchdog organization and he later went on to his 
current job as a Socialist member of the European Parliament.

Few others reaped such bright futures. Even today, France, with the 
largest non-European immigrant population in Europe, has only a 
handful of minorities in senior government, news media or corporate 
positions, a sharp contrast with some European countries with smaller 
minority populations.

As disappointment settled over the projects and discrimination 
outside them grew, young French of West African and North African 
origin withdrew into their neighborhoods' increasingly closed world.

"The violence is an expression of anger but also a cry for help," Mr. 
Desir said. "The state must be there to guarantee that people will be 
protected from discrimination, treated correctly by the police, 
helped to get out of the projects."

Otherwise, he warned, the door is open for other ideologies, like 
fundamentalist Islam. Mr. Desir, who is a Roman Catholic, said the 
number of French-born youths who have been recruited to violent 
radical groups was small so far, "but it has sounded an alarm."

An economic downturn hit the immigrant neighborhoods harder than the 
rest of the country, and many of the jobs never came back. A series 
of deadly bombings in France by terrorists tied to a war in Algeria 
further soured the national mood toward the growing immigrant population.

As things grew steadily worse, crime in and from the projects grew. 
An effort by the last Socialist administration helped improve things 
a bit by putting police officers on the beat in the neighborhoods and 
providing money to create jobs for young residents. But both programs 
ended after Jacques Chirac became president.

His tough interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, replaced the police on 
the beat with officers from an anti-crime brigade who cover several 
towns at a time. Their aggressive tactics have won almost universal 
scorn in the projects and created an air of hostility that has 
precipitated the current violence.

"They're cowboys, they're Rambos," Mr. Marouni complained. He said 
the situation had deteriorated rapidly since the anti-crime brigade arrived.

Many young people now spend the majority of their time in the small 
world of their projects, threatened by the police if they venture too far.

"When you're in your project, you're safe, but if you go out it's 
more dangerous," said a tall, young man who gave his name as Kunta 
Kinte, smoking a marijuana cigarette near the Temple Woods projects 
in Clichy-sous-Bois north of the city.

The balconies of the apartment blocks of Evry's housing projects are 
crowded with drying laundry, bicycles and flower boxes. Teenagers and 
mothers with strollers crisscross the leafy, parklike grounds.

"The apartments are nice," said Mr. Marouni, who now lives with his 
wife and three children in a three-bedroom apartment in one of the buildings.

"It's not a problem of poverty," said Alain Touraine, an expert on 
integration in France, adding that the underlying problems are 
deeper. "What we are living through is a general process of rapid 
reverse integration that is the result of failures on both sides."

He believes that the only way to solve the problem is to create 
public debate so people can address each other rather than the 
caricatures they see.

People in the neighborhoods say they have a simpler solution - pull 
back the police and help idle young people find jobs.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman