French 'Troubles' Reach Tourist Mecca

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Fingers of river fog carry a piercing midnight chill through the narrow, cobbled streets of Blois this November evening. World famous for its 13th century castle, 17th century cathedral, and medieval old town, Blois has long been fixture on the itinerary of the millions of tourists visiting France's Loire Valley every year. But as he peers up at the prematurely-hung Christmas decorations glittering above the immaculate, well-tended streets, Youness Ouzaanik is aware of just how different this postcard scene looks from the desolate landscapes of Blois's vast housing projects — where he lives, along with nearly a third of the city's population. "I'm not asking for Christmas decorations, just street lights that work," says Ouzaanik, a 21-year-old university student and French-born son of Moroccan immigrants. "No one expects the projects to be transformed into something as nice as central Blois — that's impossible. But is it really necessary that we have it so bad?"

That question still echoes around France in the wake of the explosions of violence that has rocked the country's blighted suburban housing projects for three weeks — even reaching places like Blois, which few would ever equate with gritty urban strife. But if it took this month's fury to alert France to the unemployment, economic deprivation, racial segregation, and social exclusion felt in its banlieues, everyone in Blois seemed fully aware of the problem. "We have the second largest housing project population-per-total municipal population in France," comments Willy Spitz, president of the "Quartier Proximité" association, whose 16 members pair off each night to patrol Blois's projects to defuse conflict situations. Roughly 18,000 of Blois's 51,000 total population reside in its 150 hectare "northern section" of projects, notes Spitz; internal tensions and feelings of injustice there have periodically boiled over since a first wave of violence in 1999. The most recent outbreak came Nov. 5-7, when the third straight day of rioting around Paris inspired similar unrest in the Blois projects — resulting in pitched battles with police, and around 20 cars torched.

"We heard the rumblings early on, and knew the risks of contagion were high — especially given the TV attention," says Nicolas Perruchot, a Blois native who was so taken aback by project rioting in late 2000 that he led a law-and-order campaign for mayor that unseated long-time office holder, Socialist Jack Lang in March 2001. Though Perruchot has also mounted urban renovation programs to improve public housing, and used tax exemptions to lure business and jobs out to the projects, he says he was elected on promises to restore order, by residents of the city center and northern banlieue alike. "I went out myself and was horrified to see to what degree the state had withdrawn, law had shrunk away, and the Republic had retreated from these areas," he recalls. "This isn't about authoritative provocation, but it is saying 'enough is enough. It's time to be civilized'."

Ouzaanik and fellow student Mourad Salah-Brahim don't deny there's a order problem in their projects. But, they say, like in banlieues elsewhere, there's too much stick without much carrot. "We live in a tough and mean world: you need cops, you need security," says Ouzaanik of the frequent ID checks and rousts the often ethnic Arab and black project residents are subjected to by police. "But I'm talking about getting searched three times per week — usually by the same cops, who remember you, but figure they'll remind you who is boss all the same. Of course it's racist. Of course people get mad. Wouldn't you?"

Salah-Brahim sees the abusive checks as designed to keep the underclass shut away. "These check points the cops set up — they're road blocks to dissuade us from going into town," Salah-Brahim remarks, saying there isn't much option since "every business has moved out of here — there's nothing left". The same barriers exist for schools and in the job market, he continues. Despite his good grades and keen interest in advanced business studies, Salah-Brahim recalls being told by advisors that it would be more practical for him to learn a manual trade. "I applied to business schools, and got rejections even though I know other people from better neighborhoods got accepted with the same grades," he says. "After, teachers and people said, 'We tried to warn you. It's too difficult to do what you're trying to do'. Too difficult? Only because I'm called Mourad, and live in the projects. It's not that hard otherwise."

Perhaps, but Marie-Claude Vitali, a long-time resident of northern Blois who has worked for nearly 30 years to help locals help themselves, says the mutual accusation and disdain dividing French society from the banlieues must give way to common cause if future violence is to be avoided. "Thirty years of uninterrupted policy errors on integration must end with France accepting the various cultures that now exist within French society — including French-born people who aren't the immigrants their parents are, yet not culturally French either," says the ebullient Vitali. Inspired and driven teachers, more experienced cops, and above all an increase in decent jobs accessible to project residents are urgently needed to reverse the growing alienation and defiance of banlieue youths, but locals must also demonstrate desire to fit in on society's terms as well. "This culture and attitude of exclusion have made some even well-education people here unemployable," Vitali notes. Ouzaanik isn't one of those, and the smart, witty student says he dreams of acting as the first span in a bridge linking Blois' estranged populations. "The banlieues are as much a part of Blois as the castle," Ouzaanik comments. "One day, I'd like to see our neighborhoods included in the tourist brochures."