Public Housing's Role in France's Tensions

Some analysts blame recent rioting in France on the discontent and alienation fostered by bleak housing projects on the poor outskirts of French cities. The location and architecture of public housing can contribute to a sense of isolation and hopelessness among young French people of Arabic and African origin.

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We're gonna follow up now on the aftermath of weeks of rioting in France. Some analysts blame those disturbances on discontent and alienation in bleak housing projects in the poor suburbs of French cities. They say the location of the projects and even their architecture marginalize minorities who are mostly of foreign origin. From Paris, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

The French suburbs, satellite towns ringing the big cities, developed in the years of the postwar boom. They were inspired by the Utopian ideas of Swiss architect Likud Bosier(ph), functional structures for the working class that were supposed to blend lodging, commercial and leisure spaces near the factories that provided employment. But the subsidized French housing projects never lived up to this ideal.

Emmanuel de Roux, a journalist who writes about urban planning for the newspaper Le Monde, sees the architectural plan of the projects as one of the major causes of social alienation.

Mr. EMMANUEL DE ROUX (Le Monde): (Through Translator) These new areas were built in opposition to the city. A European city is, first of all, a place for social interaction, filled with squares where people can meet and exchange ideas and engage in trade. In these suburbs there are absolutely no meeting places. They are simply bedroom communities with no center.

POGGIOLI: The housing projects in some suburbs are massive cement blocks up to 20 stories high. They were designed as perfectly rectangular structures for ease of construction. The building materials were often cheap and shoddy. And now many of the local factories have shut down, triggering a spiral of poverty.

(Soundbite of music, explosion)

POGGIOLI: This TV documentary shows the demolition of a large public housing project as part of a new plan to build smaller housing units with more privacy. The government has earmarked $35 billion for urban renovation. But sociologist Said Buamama(ph) tells the interviewer the suburbs' problems can't be fixed simply by changing public housing's architectural structure.

Mr. SAID BUAMAMA (Sociologist): (Through Translator) It's wrong to say there's a problem of rabbit cages. The problem is degraded living conditions, joblessness and the loss of hope. You can renovate buildings all you want. They call it gilding the ghettos with a coat of paint. But that won't solve anything.

POGGIOLI: St. Genevieve du Bois, like all suburbs, is hard to reach. It takes more than an hour by subway, train and bus from central Paris.

(Soundbite of voices)

POGGIOLI: This is the only cafe in a town with 10,000 residents. Most belong to second- and third-generation of Arab and African immigrants. They've been unable to move out and upward like many of their former white neighbors. After the riots, the government floated proposals for easy-term loans to buy apartments in the projects to give residents a stronger sense of belonging. But Brahim Elzurek(ph), a young man in his early 20s, rejects the idea.

Mr. BRAHIM ELZUREK (Resident): (Through Translator) This is an enclave. They put all foreigners in one place. Add one part joblessness, one part police, shake well and you get these suburbs. Our number-one desire is to leave these unhealthy housing projects in which the state tries to keep an eye over us.

POGGIOLI: Brahim Elzurek is one of a group of a dozen young men who say they never get a chance to explain themselves to the outside world. Fazal Bulina(ph), the intellectual of the group, doesn't think the suburb is completely hopeless. He dreams of a cultural center that, as he says, would bring the world to St. Genevieve du Bois and end its isolation. He studied history and applied for a job at the local Honore de Balzac Library. He didn't get it.

Mr. FAZAL BULINA (Resident): (Through Translator) They told me, `Aren't you afraid your North African friends will come back in and wreck the place?'

POGGIOLI: St. Genevieve du Bois was not the scene of any riots this past November. The young men in this group are all active in grassroots organizations focusing on voter registration, but they know they have little chance of making a mark in politics. Minorities here have no political representation whatsoever. But Fazal Bulina says they have the strength of numbers and need to learn how to organize.

Mr. BULINA: (Through Translator) We live here, but we haven't fully absorbed the values of this society. It's like when you enter a new house and you use the bathroom and you use the dining room, but there are some rooms you still don't want to enter. Civic society and citizenship are like the rooms we haven't yet learned to use.

POGGIOLI: Both men are anxious to be accepted and embraced by the French and to have what they call a common destiny with the rest of the society.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Paris.

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