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A Grey Hope: Thin Territorial Identity among French Suburban Youth in Garges and Sarcelles
The French suburban bus stop is an image of diversity. Muslim headscarves, Jewish akipas, and the bold primary colors of African garb offer a kaleidoscope of diverse cultural images. But the world’s fashion capital hides harrowing hardships in its suburbs, its residents bound for the usual destinations: job discrimination in the workplace, poor living conditions, and institutional oppression by the “real” France. These hardships surround a complex net of identities based on community, ethnicity, religion, race, and gender.
Thomas Shelby, drawing his conceptual basis for identity formation from the American civil rights movement, offers a method of categorizing these identities as “thick” and “thin.” Thick identities form from strong community interaction, creating an image that positively reinforces differences. Applied to suburban youth, thick identities may include racial, religious, or ethnic origins; a French youth in the suburb, for instance, may find self-identification in their North African origin. Garges, for instance, hosts a diverse populace of immigrants, and each person carries a strong identification with the country or people they left. Additionally, community identification based on living a life with the same family and friends can constitute thick identities. Community identity has made elements of various cultures mainstream. It is not unusual in a suburb such as Garges for the average person to greet another with the Arabic phrase “As-salaam alaykum” (“Peace be with you”).
A society of coexisting groups based on identities that are often at odds with each other, combined with conditions of economic hardship, seems to invite constant inter-group conflict. It seems strange, then, that unlike the urban riots that took place North of England, at no moment during the youth-initiated November riots in the French suburbs did one ethnic group turn against another. Thick identity based on community, ethnicity, race, and religion insufficiently explains how a collection of hundreds of poorly connected suburbs can inspire a movement of youth against police and the banlieues against central Paris. This report attempts to explore an identity common to the entire body of suburbs around an intricate configuration of fashion, speech, transportation, and gender—territorial identity.
Through Thick and Thin
France’s youth have developed a strong sense of solidarity with marked differences from thick identities tied to ethnicity, race, or even single communities. The French suburb, also known as the banlieue, distinguishes itself from the American conception of a suburb as a middle class commuter area as low-income apartments and social housing with a high concentration of foreign immigrants. The banlieue is the epicenter of France’s crisis—in a deep social sense, suburban youth are drowning. Unemployment in France for the young between 15 and 24 years stands at 17.3%. (INSEE, 2005). Youth of the banlieue bear the brunt of this marginalization, with unemployment figures ranging from 30 to as high as 85% in various cités (Silverstein, Tetreault 6). Moreover, social housing buildings, the unspectacular, monolithic slabs of concrete that tower over the banlieue, suffer from problems ranging from water damage to deaths resulting from fire hazards (Silverstein, Tetreault 7). In addition, personal accounts of Garges’ youths indicate a deficit in leisure activities and the absence of parents during the day, leaving banlieue youth to spend time with friends on the street, a social practice that police forcefully discourage. The lack of free social mobility and the proliferation of suburban poverty are dual blows dealt to a banlieue adolescent’s hope for a brighter future.
The Formation of a New Self-Identity
Yesterday, on June 27, Zinedine Zidane led the French football team to a 3-1 victory against the heavy favorite, Spain, in the 2006 Coupe du Monde. The districts of central Paris echoed that night with car horns, French flags posted on motorcycles streaked past pedestrians, and the country was in an uproar. The next morning, Aadam wakes up, slips on his Moroccan soccer jersey, and leaves to meet his friends in Châtelet.
Although the November riots symbolize the French suburbs’ most striking response to their government, the suburban youth’s other responses to systemic social oppression are far from subtle, and Aadam’s story is far from fiction. Liza Gualandris, a French teacher in the Stains suburb, claims that the suburban youth’s rejection of the French state is so deep that teenagers refuse to cheer for the French team during the Coupe du Monde, investing their fandom instead in the teams representing their ethnic origin. Although this phenomenon may seem attributable to a thick identity, identification with ethnic origin, the youth’s expression is an intentional act of rebellion against the French soccer team, a symbol of national identity.
The relationship between the French government and the suburban youth grows more precarious with every political event. With regard to the French triumvirate, liberté, égalité, and fraternité, the banlieue youth felt a deep sense of rejection by the French republican model, based on social mistreatment. For instance, Nikolas Sarkozy responded to the French riots with a campaign of zero-tolerance for the “racailles,” or scum, on national television on October 30, 2005. While the term racailles, roughly interpreted as “gangsta,” is a common colloquial phrase among youth in the banlieue, suburban youth were outraged that a national politician used the term. From personal interviews, the kinder responses of the youth claimed that “he is not a member of our society and suburb,” “he cannot understand us,” and “he labeled us as delinquents or criminals but not all youth are like that.”
Blanket social oppression applied to the French suburbs has generated an identity with the same breadth, an identity based on territory. Common oppression theory describes the formation of a temporary, shared identity among a socially discriminated group of people or “a vague social marker imposed from outside” (Shelby, 97). Pap N’diaye offers a dramatic analogy to explain the principle: “People on a sinking ship find identity in one commonality: the struggle to avoid drowning.” In sum, suburban youth, those fated to inherit this broken system, respond to perceived oppression with a common identity based on territory. Despite the fact that Garges is a country of varied ethnicities, every citizen of Garges faces poor housing, job discrimination in metropolitan France, and the subsequent lack of social mobility. Many social science experts acknowledge the emergence of a territorial identity in response to the phenomenon of common social oppression. However, it remains to be examined how this territorial identity is perceived in the youth of the banlieue.
Aadam looks at his watch at the Châtelet station. With no sight of his friends, Aadam finds a secluded corner of the metro, retrieves a can of black spray paint, and decorates the tiled wall with a memorable phrase: “Sarko schlingue!” (“Sarkozi stinks!”)
The Shape of the New Self-Identity: Metro Maps
Seventeen-year-old Abdul steps off RER at Châtelet, stationed in the center of Paris. Standing to his left and wearing the classic look of tourist’s confusion, a man searches for the lines to take him to the Arc de Triomphe. Abdul eyes Zone 4 of the tourist’s map, the third concentric area outside the center of Paris, and what he calls home.
Public transportation in the French cités is heavily undeveloped. The French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research reported in 1990 that sixty percent of French suburbs lack their own train station, and sixteen years has done little in the way of progress. Only approximately 120 stops exist for thousands of suburban communities, stunting movement between them. The metro lines radiate outward from Zone 1 to the suburbs, leaving links between suburbs to sparsely distributed buses and trams (Silverstein, Tetreault 7). It is for this reason that the metro is accused of deepening feelings of isolation and fragmenting suburbs into separate communities. The zones on the map organized in reference to the center of Paris also function as labels of social status; the further one lives from the center, the greater the sense of marginalization. In short, the metro physically and symbolically asserts the suburbs’ inferiority to the Parisian center by doubling as a schematic of social rank.
Enter the startling paradox: the metro is the means for youth self-identification. Many swell with pride at the sight of their national flag or slogan; to react with this feeling to a metro map seems peculiar. Interviews conducted with youth in Garges and Sarcelles revealed a unanimous identification of the vague term “community” with zones determined by public transportation. In fact, youth’s sense of identification with public zoning as a symbol of personal identity is so strong that it saturates e-mail addresses (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org, where the numbers indicate the Garges region code). In a stunning dichotomy, a symbolic and practical source of oppression, public transportation, inspires a territorial identity resisting social discrimination.
The main social dividing lines lie between the metro and the RER, separating zones 1 and 2 from the outer fringes of Paris. Yet the idea that the metro represents a Parisian social hierarchy carries with it several nuances. For instance, Chatou, a zone 4 suburb, is a much wealthier suburb that Aubervillers, a zone 3 suburb. For this reason, the “95” and “93” departments are often labeled as “bad” banlieues, while the “78” or “92” departments are considered residential middle class suburbs. Furthermore, despite its importance to a suburban youth’s comprehensive identity, territorial identity symbolized on the metro map does not erase strong ethnic, racial, or religious affiliations. Many youth claimed stronger identification with being Muslim or being a woman than living in Garges. Ethnic diversity in a suburb such as Garges, home to more than sixty ethnicities, may raise an immediate concern: what is the nature of ethnic conflict in French suburbs? Posing this question to teachers, directors of community service initiatives, and suburban youth delivered a unanimous answer. Although conflicts in the suburb ostensibly appear ethnic, the impetus for these conflicts is often repressive social policy. While numeric designations and the persistence of thick identities offer a nuanced vision of social hierarchy on the metro map, it nonetheless remains true that Paris’s centralized public transportation system frames attitudes of Paris to the rest of France and the separation between the central government and the various regions of France.
Often, conflicts appearing to be ethnic are partially structured by political concerns and institutionalized discriminations. Eros Sana offers several examples. First, the local government at Garges, upon building a new social housing establishment, concentrated newly-arrived Turkish immigrants in the building. Those that were displaced by the destruction of the old building perceived the newcomers as taking advantage of the benefits that they fought for, inspiring aggression against them. Although skewed public opinion labeled the conflict as ethnic, the true source of conflict was the policy that assigned newcomers to new social housing establishments. Second, a Jewish organization in Sarcelles elected to rent the local swimming pool on a Sunday afternoon, disallowing women from attending. A man spoke out against the exclusion of women as discriminatory, and he was labeled as an anti-Semitic in light of his Arabic origin. Finally, three men in Sarcelles were robbed in the middle of the night; because the three men were Jewish, the act was denounced as anti-Semitic. These examples do not suggest that ethnic conflict in suburbs does not exist. One youth’s story exhibited discrimination as an outgrowth of police discrimination. A policeman pulls over a Jewish man, who, upon admitting he is not carrying his driver’s license, is released; minutes later, an Arabic man is charged eighty euro for the same offence. As a result, Arabic people began to openly resent Jewish people for reaping the benefits of differential treatment. However, it still stands that ethnic conflicts in French suburbs like Garges and Sarcelles are too often misinterpreted as identity conflicts. The youth of Garges view this misinterpretation as an attempt by the government to fragment unity in the suburbs, which seems to create the opposite effect: a strong, collective antipathy towards the social policies of the central government.
The Scarlet Letter: Discrimination by Movement
Two rollerblading French policemen scan the terrain for the usual markers of criminal activity: hooded sweatshirts, silver chains, baggy clothes, suburban dialect, and skin color. He spots a teenager, obviously suburban, suspiciously eyeing a tourist. The boy and the policeman make eye contact. Abdul sighs, emptying his pockets for the random search he knows isn’t random at all.
“Jourbon.” Kevin stammered, realizing his mistake, and corrects himself. “Bonjour.” The employer furrows his eyebrows, turning to the next page of the candidate’s CV. He scans the page, finding the information that confirms his suspicions: “Residence: Garges.” Kevin’s interview was over.
In many ways, the banlieues bustle with movement. Immigrants from various nations enter the banlieue, and suburban youth strive for admission to a “grandes écoles,” France’s most prestigious educational institutions, or a job in metropolitan Paris. Moreover, suburbs as collective entities hope to move forward with social progress and the dream of modernity. These dreams are threatened by layers of discrimination based on precisely what defines the banlieue, the movement of its people. In this case, suburban youth find that in entering central Paris through the RER lines, the long arm of discrimination pursues them.
Unique language and fashion are ways for central Paris to recognize and, subsequently, discriminate against the banlieue dweller. The rhetorical manipulation of syllables in words like “les femmes” (women), “bonjour” (hello), and “je suis énervé” (I am irritated) creates words with suburban flavor: “les meufs,” “jourbon,” and “sui venère,” a clear indication that the French dialect in the suburbs is distinct from that of metropolitan France. Likewise, suburban fashion is distinct from that of central Paris based both on ethnic dress and economic hardships. Set against the backdrop of traditional metropolitan clothing in Paris, the brightly colored cloth and sweeping geometric shapes of African clothing, and most notably the Muslim headscarves, are easy to notice. In fact, several suburban girls were not allowed into stores when department clerks noticed their lack of designer brand clothes.
Social systems of discrimination thus detect the movement of suburban youth through these tangible markers. A casual stroll through Châtelet is time enough to witness an episode of policemen questioning youth or conducting random searches systematically with banlieue youth. To return to the original question of this report, what force can unite hundreds of physically separated suburbs? The answer lies in the blanket discrimination that banlieue youth face, and the universal cultural markers that banlieue youth share.
A Dimmer View of Territorial Identity
Territorial identity does not resist the crushing feeling of social oppression without creating its own difficulties. Territorial identity is not uniform. Youth may have a sense of belonging to their block, town, or zone. Differential conceptions of this identity breed territorial conflicts between youth, which may lead to aggressive behavior. The most alarming disparity is the difference in social standards between boys and girls. All youth interviewees unanimously affirmed differential treatment between boys and girls, but the reasons for the differential treatment varied, depending largely on the gender of the respondent. Suburban boys responded that “the suburbs are very dangerous and we would like to protect our sisters and girlfriends. It is not because they are girls, but because it is dangerous.” The suburban girls’ answers reflected a general feeling of repression by boys their age as well as their community. The most common response was that “the boys think that girls are inferior to boys, so we can’t participate to the riots and fight. The role of the woman is to take care of children and clean the house and not to fight…but we would like to be rebellious like boys and help them against the political systems.”
It is certainly true that Garges is dangerous at night, based on the proliferation of the grey market, a makeshift economic system for stolen goods, and frequent criminal activity. However, suburban boys’ use of solidarity, a result of territorial identity, to parent girls is a source of additional oppression on women in suburbs. The girls, notably those of Turkish and Moroccan origin, claimed feeling the pressure of the social distinction between the “tasspé” (the “bad” girls who drift) and the “good” girls who confined their responsibilities to the domestic arena. Because of these labels, even forthright, confident girls face negative social consequences for their freedom.
Social scientists often attribute this social phenomenon to Islam and the patriarchal societies of North Africa. Olivier Roy, research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and a lecturer for both the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, argues that both variation in religious constraints among Muslims and the ethnic, racial, and religious heterogeneity of French neighborhoods discount claims that Islamic social structures are entirely responsible for gender roles in the banlieue. A growing number of mosques in the banlieue has naturally sponsored competitive divisions, including ethnic divisions between Moroccans, Algerians, and Turks, ideological divisions between Salafist and traditional mosques, generational divisions from youth rejecting traditional imams, and group divisions between mosques following the Tablighi and Habashi movements. Furthermore, Roy insists, machismo is less an indication of an Islamic patriarchal system and more an indication of a fragile social environment. Young African Americans and Latinos in American inner cities convey no less machismo than Muslim youth. Finally, socioeconomic hardships responsible for territorial identity may reinforce gender paternalism, as men feel the need to reassert their dominance in the face of unemployment. In sum, factors related to the emergence of territorial identity strongly influence gender inequalities in French suburbs.
Although the view that women should be judged as “good” and “bad” and that their roles should be confined to the home are not held exclusively by the suburbs, it is in the suburbs that women can afford to bear these standards the least. With these social standards in place, women lack the solidarity gained by men through territorial identity. In fact, the solidarity gained by men through territorial identity can reinforce social standards that judge women. The emergence of territorial identity as a response to common oppression has the potential to render women in the suburb invisible. While territorial identity can inspire hope in challenging vicious cycles of poverty and social immobility, that very identity can reinforce repression in women. The youth of Garges and Sarcelles pick up the shards of their broken identity and form a new one in territory: impermanent but unifying, inspiring hope in some while repressing it in others.
Thinking outside the Box: Conflict Control
The RER bound for Garges grinds to a halt at Châtelet’s metro station. The train jerks to a start, bound for home. Tasha looks out the window, recalling the words of French rap group Suprême NTM: “Where are our roots? Who are our models? / You’ve burned the wings of a whole generation / Shattered dreams, soiled the seed of hope / Oh! When I think about it / It’s time to think; it’s time that France/ Deigns to take account of its crimes.”
Why is it important to understand a suburban youth’s thin territorial identity? Our interviews revealed that teachers, community workers, and students alike have little doubt the riots will resume in the near future. As the socioeconomic hardships and institutional discrimination that prompted French suburban youth’s November 2005 riots persist, territorial identity will persist. Formed from common oppression, inspiring hope in unity, territorial identity promises a mobilized response to the French government’s police-enforced zero-tolerance policy. In order to understand the conflicts between the youth and the police, and between the banlieues and central Paris, it is important to explore the territorial identity formed from polarized conflicts. Amin Maalouf, a proponent of this identity exploration, challenges the world to reexamine the thought processes involved in viewing those with different identities as the “other.” In the words of a suburban youth, “We are not victims, only people forced to strive for something we will never obtain.” Hope for the suburban youth’s future lies in understanding the hopelessness that that youth feel now.
Shelby, Tommie. We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Harvard University Press, Boston: Nov 2005.
Maalouf, Amin. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Penguin Books, Apr 2003.
Pfaff, William. France: The Children’s Hour. New York Review of Books. Vol 53, No. 8.
Roy, Olivier. La Laïcité face à l'Islam. Stock, Paris: 2005.
Silverstein, Paul, and Chantal Tetreault. Middle East Report: Urban Violence in France. Nov 2005.
http://www.insee.fr/fr/home/home_page.asp. National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies.
Eros Sana, founder of the organization VETO! Garges. (22 June 2005)
Pap N’diaye, historian at Ecole des Hautes Etudes des Sciences Sociales. (26 June 2006)
Liza Gualandris, French teacher in the Stain suburb (23 June 2005)
The stories in this report are based on the interviews of 16 suburban youth living in Garges, ages 14-21. Our representative set of youth had varied ethnic origins, including Mauritania, India, Kabul, Morocco, Brazil, Vietnam, and Guadeloupe (23 June 2005).
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