Native-Born, Immigrant French at Odds in Lille

While much of the world's attention has focused on Paris' northern suburbs, violent riots have struck other French cities. Some of the worst have been in Lille, a depressed northern industrial town where relations between the immigrant and native-born communities are said to be particularly bad.

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French President Jacques Chirac says his government has to respond quickly to the problems of deprived neighborhoods. He was speaking after two weeks of rioting, which eventually spread to the entire country. One of the worst-hit towns was Lille, an economically depressed town in the north. There, as in the rest of France, the rioting seems to have died down, but as NPR's Adam Davidson reports, there is still tension.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Rue Faubourg d'Arras runs south from the center of Lille. Where it meets the Rue Abilard(ph), it forms a junction between two worlds. On the right is a neighborhood of working-class, native French families; on the left lies Lille South, where the riots have been taking place. It's an area populated by Arab and African immigrants.

Cafe Jasmine(ph) is near the junction. It serves kebobs and tea. Mohammed Malawi(ph) sat there for hours this morning. He says division in Lille is so strong, it's like the wall in Palestine.

Mr. MOHAMMED MALAWI: They no have integration. It's the wall, like in Palestine, you know, the wall of the shame.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIDSON: The clientele is almost exclusively North African immigrants. Malawi's friend, Ashraf bin Grabin(ph), came to France from Morocco six months ago.

Mr. ASHRAF BIN GRABIN: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: `We like French people,' he says. `We came here to work, not to cause problems.'

His friend, Jaeb Nashi(ph), says that the French aren't necessarily racist, but the behavior of some immigrants causes racism.

Mr. JAEB NASHI: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: He said that, `If you come and live next door to me and there's dirt everywhere and you play loud music, that's going to bother me, therefore, I'm going to be a racist against you.'

Bin Grabin and Nashi say many of the people in the cafe are looking for work. Bin Grabin is even thinking of moving back to Morocco.

A group of young men come in and buy sandwiches with government food stamps. They all say they were born here of North African parents.

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: `It is a country of racists,' one of them says. `They talk about liberty and democracy, but they've never respected human rights.'

Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: Another joins in. `We're harassed by the police, just like the blacks in America.'

Throughout, the boys repeat the constant refrain here: `There's no work, no jobs, no help.'

(Soundbite of man humming)

DAVIDSON: A few doors north, right on the corner of Abilard and Darcy(ph), is Cafe Canard(ph).

(Soundbite of cafe noise)

DAVIDSON: The server behind the large bar likes to sing as he serves lunch. Nearly all the customers are native French. The owner, Bernadette Beauchamp(ph), waves in the direction of the ghetto.

Ms. BERNADETTE BEAUCHAMP (Owner, Cafe Canard): (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: `They always want more,' she says. `They say they have a hard time integrating, but they're not looking for work.'

Ms. BEAUCHAMP: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: She continues, `It was the left that gave them everything. Now they want more and more. Why don't they go to Australia? It's a giant, new country. We're old. We don't have jobs for ourselves.'

Several of her customers agree.

Lille is a town divided sharply on political lines. There's a strong left-wing union movement, but also, many supporters of nationalist anti-immigration parties. Beauchamp is one of those.

Algia Bendir(ph), who was born here to Algerian parents, came in to buy a pack of cigarettes.

Ms. ALGIA BENDIR: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: Bendir says the riots were caused by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who called immigrants `scum.'

Beauchamp, the owner, says, `You didn't burn cars. They didn't say that about you.' Bendir turns to her and says that she was hit by the French police for no reason. And she asks, `How will young Arabs respect politicians if the politicians don't offer respect in return?' `But you're different,' Beauchamp says. `You could get out of the ghetto.'

Ms. BENDIR: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: `No, Madam, I can't,' Bendir responds. `I don't have the right to a peaceful life in a little apartment.'

Then Bendir switches to Arabic and nods at Beauchamp and says, `I don't like her.'

Once out of the cafe, Bendir talks more freely. She says she's the only immigrant at her office, a marketing firm. Her co-workers ask her why Algerians came to France. She responds that the French brought them here to rebuild the country after World War II.

Ms. BENDIR: (French spoken)

DAVIDSON: Then she says, `I want all the immigrants to leave France; the Moroccans, the Italians, the Spanish. Then the French will be all by themselves, and France will fall apart.' Adam Davidson, NPR News, Paris.

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