Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Rage of the Projects, in the Feminine

At the heart of the poor neighbourhoods, many young women support the riots
In Montfermeil, they talk about their daily ordeal
by Marie-Joëlle GROSLiberation, Friday November 11th 2005
“When the riot cops were in the projects, I really wanted to go down, to go there myself. But my mother did not want me to. I was by the window, I saw everything without being able to do anything. How I was angry!” Sabrina, “seventeen and a half years old,” lives in Bosquets in Montfermeil (Seine-Saint-Denis), a housing estate right by Clichy-sous-Bois. The student occasionally played soccer with one of the two youths who died of electrical burns in that neighbouring area on October 27th. Their deaths set off riots, and there have been violent clashes between young people and police here. Though things seem to have calmed down now, the youths are still on edge.

Hardly anyone has listened to them so far, and the girls from the Bosquets project talk quickly, like someone with a lot to say. And none of what they say is against those who “set the fires, as they say.” Quite the contrary: today, nobody is talking about problems between boys and girls, the young people in the housing estates are all on the same side. “It was like a bomb, we knew it was going to explode,” explains one of the girls who we met at the social center. “And you see, things are happening now. It goes to show that it had to explode.” The teachers, who are encouraging them to speak up these days, observe that “The girls have the same feelings of revolt as the boys. But they are not acting on them.”

Counterproductive I.D. Checks

Within the projects, the girls are less visible than the boys who “hang out along the walls.” They are not afraid to live here, and they sleep “with both eyes closed,” they say defiantly. But they too complain of daily police checks. “The police are not there to protect us,” says Sabrina. “They provoke us all of the time. They call as bastards and bougnoules [a derogatory term for Africans, originally used by white settlers in Senegal]. It is normal that the young people hate them. The girls and the boys.” One student in her class suggested they do a project about the events. “The teacher said no, but she did agree that we should talk about how we felt. So I said everything I felt, and it was the same as what the boys felt.”

Cecile, 26 years old, who “nevertheless has a French name,” explains: “The other day, we were celebrating a friend’s kid’s birthday. We were going through the housing estate with them when the cops came across us. They spent their time watching us. They circled with their cars, stopped, started again. It’s intolerable.”

She lives with her three-year old son in his mother’s apartment: “There are six of us in an F3. I asked for an apartment. I have a job at the psychiatric hospital, I am a receptionist. But they told me that, because there are so many apartments being squatted, there are none for me.” She has no plans to leave the Bosquets housing project where she has already lived for twenty years. “I like where I live, it is just that there is not a lot in the area. If I do leave one day, it will be for my son’s education.”

The little boy is twirling around her. “I left school when I was fourteen,” Cecile continues. « Everyone leaves school early here. The parents have no money, we want to get out there and make money. Especially when we see others who can go out and buy clothes or go on outings.”

Sanaa, twenty years old, has not gone to school for a long time. She wanted to take classes to be an esthetician, but the teachers discouraged her. “They told me: ‘You live on a bad housing estate, you speak like trash, you should be a secretary.’ I never understood why. In any case, I always had problems at school.” She looks after her young niece. “I would like her to go to school far from here,” says Sanaa. “I mean, far from this neighbourhood. Here, all of the programmes are dated. They’re just teaching the alphabet. The kids need to read and write and that’s all.”

Sahra, 24 years old, jumps in : “I promised my younger cousin that I would pay for her to go to a private school. There are 26 kids in her class, 23 who don’t speak French. In other places the kids learn English and other things. Here, it’s just the bare minimum. We have to send out kids outside of the neighbourhood.”

But contacts on the outside are not obvious. After looking for three years, Sanaa only managed to find a temporary job for one month, preparing airplane meals at Roissy airport. Sahra quit before finishing her BTS in sales. A nice girl with a fiery temperament, she describes herself as a “young entrepreneur.” Born in Algeria, her mother is raising her three children on her own. “I have major respect for her. She has two jobs [one in a cafeteria and one as a maintenance worker], all of that for 8 000 francs a month.”

Sahra tried to open a clothing store in the city, but it didn’t work out. She is trying the markets. “People are often uncomfortable with us, with how we speak, how we dress. But we have to stop acting like victims. We also have to make an effort.”

“We Stand Out”

But she doesn’t accept the “insult” she suffers “often, in restaurants.” When she goes out in Paris, “they bring us the bill almost right after we order! As if we would leave without paying! Or else the waiters pretend they don’t see us, they act like we’re not there. I tell them: ‘I have the same money as the people at the other tables, so you had better take my order!’” Cecile laughs at this, “It is true that we stand out. We talk loud. There are people next to us, they’re eating with their children, they don’t even speak to each other, or at least we don’t hear them!” At work too, Cecile gets reactions, “I speak a bit like someone from the projects. Whenever I say something, they ask me what about the cars that are being set on fire in the projects.”

She is a young mother, but she is not bothered about the daycares that have been burnt down. “Perhaps this is a chance to build some nicer ones,” she says.

They do not condemn the fires or the property damage : “They are only material belongings, that doesn’t mater, they have insurance. Physical assaults are where I draw the line. That, no way,” says Sahra. She adds: “If I were the leader, I wouldn’t set things on fire in the housing projects. I would go to Neuilly or Raincy [the most well-to-do city in Seine-Saint-Denis, where the mayor Eric Raoult nevertheless imposed a curfew].”

They hate Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Vilelpin: The government takes no responsibility for its actions. Why doesn’t he say ‘It is our fault, we’re sorry.’ We can understand human error, things like that happen. But no, whenever there are problems with the police, they always say: ‘After finishing our investigation, we have found it is your fault.’”

Please note that the above text about young women in France’s housing projects comes from the Liberation, a mainstream newspaper. I normally don’t bother translating stuff from the mainstream press, butit was one of the onkl pieces I have seen to discuss how women in France’s immigrant communities feel about the riots. I have a “fast and loose” translation philosophy, meaning that when there is a choice between readability and the original phraseology i tend to favour the former, provided that the meaning stays the same. The original document can be seen in French.

Please also note that i am translating this as i have not been able to find any radical accounts of the riots or the police racism that provoked them in English… i do not necessarily agree with the author’s point of view, nor do they necessarily agree with mine. Si quelqu’un a un meilleur texte à suggérer, svp envoyez-moi le!

For background to the riots, including a timeline, check out the Wikipedia entry.

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