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Paris Riots: Voices from the ghetto

Burned out cars in Paris suburb.

Torched cars litter poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris and have become a signature of more than two weeks of rioting in France. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

Guy Diaz grew up on the wrong side of the Peripherique, the eight-lane ring road that surrounds the City of Lights like a traffic-filled moat. Inside the "Periph," as it's known here, is the Paris of postcards. Outside, "it's another country," Guy, 18, said. "We don't look the same. We have our own language."

I met Guy in Clichy-sous-Bois, a ghetto northeast of central Paris. It was here, just over two weeks ago, that two young boys who thought they were being chased by cops ran into a power station and were electrocuted to death. The incident quickly touched off riots. And as the all-too-literal flashpoint of unrest quickly spread throughout France, journalists from all over the world inundated Clichy-sous-Bois. I was in flight from a small media swarm at a local youth center when I came upon Guy -- head down, hood up, earphones on -- walking alone down a quiet street.

"The only thing you need to understand," Guy told me, "is that there are only three ways out of the ghetto for people like us: sports, music or fashion."

Guy dabbles in all three. He plays semi-pro soccer, he raps and he works with friends who have recently launched a hip-hop clothing label. Being famous and rich is the only way Guy, the son of immigrants from the Ivory Coast, feels he can transcend the discrimination that otherwise would condemn him to a suburban ghetto for the rest of his life. People like him, Guy explained, have to rise that far to be fully welcomed in France.

"They say that the youth are the ones causing all the destruction around here, but this can't be them," Mamad said, pointing at the corroding facades of high-rise apartment buildings. "Look at that! It's mildew. This is just rotten."

As proof, he pointed to Frenchmen with African roots who have succeeded in climbing out of the French ghettos. Zinedine Zidane, for example, who grew up in the rough suburbs around Marseille, is an international football star. Zidane is nothing short of an icon in France.

"We're foreigners forever," he said. "But Zidane, he is French!"

Guy told me to come back and meet him that night if I wanted to learn more about life in the 'hood. I confess the prospect of heading into the suburbs at night was a bit unsettling. It was tough enough to be there during the day, but at night, well, that's when the rioting begins.

I'd been covering the violence for about a week, and I found that one of the biggest challenges was to actually talk to the people whom this story is about: young men growing up in the ghetto. It was one of the ironies of reporting in the suburbs. The burning of cars was a way to bring attention to the plight of the people who lived there, I was told over and over. But now everyone was paying attention, and many in these Arab and African neighborhoods complained that the media was painting a negative image. Young residents were suspicious, if not hostile, toward the press.

After talking to Guy, I met up with Mamad, a 25-year-old youth group organizer of Senegalese descent. Mamad offered to take me on an express tour of some of the more run-down areas of Clichy-sous-Bois, his hometown.

"It's not enough to come and watch cars or buildings burning. You should try to understand why people decide to do all that," he said.

"They say that the youth are the ones causing all the destruction around here, but this can't be them," he said, pointing at the corroding facades of high-rise apartment buildings. "Look at that! It's mildew. This is just rotten."

"You wouldn't believe the conditions that we live in," he continued. "We have rats. The pipes are old. It stinks. And remember, you're only 20 minutes from the Champs-Elysees. The only thing that separates us is the ring road."

Mamad hurried me through the projects as I tried to film. Even with a local at my side, young men ducked at the sight of my camera and made verbal threats. While shooting one decrepit building that Mamad said had been condemned, a young man jumped out of a dark, graffiti-covered doorway and hurled a glass at me.

Mamad drove me out of there and warned me not to wander through these places alone. So I asked him if he knew anyone who could be my guide. He was too busy, he said, but he would ask around.

A couple of hours later, I got a call from a young man named Idid. He said he would show me the 'burbs -- for a price. I had already paid one fixer from Paris, so I didn't see the harm in hiring someone else who could show me around a neighborhood that few graduates of the Sorbonne knew well.

We met in front of the fire station in Clichy-sous-Bois. Idid asked how much I was willing to pay. I told him I'd pay him the same amount I was paying my other fixer, about $150. He smirked and said, "I won't do for less than $1,000."

I would be paying for protection, he explained. And out of that money, he would have to pay off other people. Other journalists had done it, he said. When I told him I couldn't, he politely wished me luck and walked away.

Fortunately, I still had plans to meet Guy in Clichy-sous-Bois that night. At 10 p.m., I met him and two of his friends in an empty parking lot a few hundred yards from their housing complex. He introduced them as Amada and Hardi, a couple of local rap impresarios who go by the name Shaolyn Gen-Zu.

The young men laughed at the portrayal of the riots as a "Muslim uprising" or a "French intifada." Indeed, no one I spoke to -- from schoolboy to scholar -- ever put things in religious terms. It was about being other-than-white, they explained.

We all piled into my rented Twingo, a very small French compact car, and headed to a local Moroccan restaurant. It was closed when we arrived. Chairs were up on tables, but the lights were still on. Guy knocked on the door, and the owner let us in.

A couple more of Guy's friends showed up, and over Fanta and tea, we talked for almost two hours. I asked them about the riots.

"It's been 30 years that we've been caged into the suburbs," said Senhadji Djouad, a 19-year-old medical student. "It was bound to happen one day or another."

Adama, 21, whose family comes from Mali and goes by the nom-de-microphone "Mike Jack," agreed and added: "It seems that people in France either didn't know or they didn't want to see what was going on here" (a French echo of the famous line from Boyz n the Hood: "Either they don't know, they don't show or they don't care about what's going on in the 'hood").

For all of them, the problem boiled down to social marginalization and discrimination. They laughed at the portrayal of the riots as a "Muslim uprising" or a "French intifada." (Indeed, no one I spoke to -- from schoolboy to scholar -- ever put things in religious terms.) It was about being other-than-white, they explained.

"By just looking at us, people know that we are immigrants," Adama said. "It's like having a limp. We're in a race, and we're limping from the start."

"Our parents didn't do anything because they weren't born here," he continued. "But we were born here. We are French. Where are they going to send us back to?"

The question of identity sparked an animated debate.

"We are in France, but we are not French," Adama said. "And at the same time, we don't know the culture of the countries we come from."

"So what are you?" I asked.

Adama replied: "We're sitting between two worlds. We're stuck."

All the young men at the restaurant told me they did not participate in the riots, but they could understand the anger and frustration that
led others to. And most believed that the violent demonstrations
would change things for the better.

"Had nothing happened, everything would have stayed the same," Adama said. "It's just like any other revolt."

For a bunch of racaille ("scum"), as the French Interior Minister referred to the rioters, the angry young men of the suburbs had managed to expose long-ignored problems in France's poor immigrant suburbs and had politicians scrambling to make promises to improve conditions.

But Naib Belkednovci, 20, a French Arab who was also at the restaurant that night, told me he was skeptical that the riots would have any long-lasting affect: "Right now, we're on TV. We're hot stuff. But in a few months, this will all be forgotten."

"The French government has a magic baguette," he added. "They'll just put people back to sleep."

Perhaps. But the youth of the French ghettos have learned one clear lesson over the last two weeks: Fire equals change. It's hard to imagine they'll settle for less.

As we left the restaurant, Mike Jack jumped in front of my camera and freestyled this little rhyme:

In France, sad adolescence
Difficult convalescence
Makes me lose my senses
Smells of fire and fuel
Criminal was the mood.

Darren Foster is a freelance journalist. He has contributed work to the CBC and Channel 4 (UK) and is working on a story about diamond mining in the Amazon for the next FRONTLINE/World broadcast on January 24, 2006.


Long Beach, New York
Great article. I have greater insight regarding the riots in Paris. Looking forward to his next article.