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France

Ten years after Paris suburb riots, has anything really changed?

© Bahar Makooi and Joséphine Lebard | Scenes from the northeastern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2015-10-27

Ten years after the deaths of two teenagers sparked riots in suburbs across France, a new book co-authored by FRANCE 24’s Bahar Makooi and journalist Joséphine Lebard takes a look at what has become of Clichy-sous-Bois – the town where it all began.

When many in France think of the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, the first image that often springs to mind is of dilapidated council estates, burning cars, angry teenagers, riot police and a decade-old photo of two young men: Bouna Traoré, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17.

Traoré and Benna were on their way home from playing football in Clichy-sous-Bois on October 27, 2005 when they died after being electrocuted at an electricity substation while running away from the police. Their deaths unleashed six weeks of riots that spread across the country, thrusting Clichy-sous-Bois into the spotlight.

Since then, countless column inches have been written about the suburb, which has become a symbol of France’s failed integration model. The town is now synonymous with violence and misery, much to the dismay of those who live there, who would prefer “it all be forgotten” according to Makooi and Lebard.

But Makooi and Lebard were unable to forget. In the book “One Year in Clichy”, the two journalists show another side of the suburb and its 30,720 residents. The pair spent two days every week for a year exploring the town, visiting council estates, hanging out at the local McDonald’s, going to the town church and mosque and, most importantly, talking with the people who live there.

Malek, Fatou and Madeleine

“Why is it that when we talk about Clichy, we only talk about the Chêne-Pointu [a privately-owned council estate with 1,500 apartments that is known for its squalid living conditions] and slum landlords? Why don’t we talk about the tavern which is just five minutes away, or Clichy’s pretty suburban streets? Clichy is also that: a very green town, with a forest, an amazing market and residents with an extraordinary spirit,” Lebard told FRANCE 24.

Among the residents Makooi and Lebard interviewed for their book was Malek, 19, who said he liked to photograph the Chêne-Pointu building at night, because the “the lit apartments of the council estate give his photos ‘a little hint of Manhattan’”.

Another was Fatou, who lives in a cheap hotel room with her two children, the eldest of whom goes to school “on the right side of the ring road” in Paris. Fatou estimated that she spends at least six hours a day on public transport just to drop off and pick up her son at school, which is an hour and a half commute one-way from Clichy-sous-Bois.

A third was Madeleine, 79, the last remaining resident at the Chêne-Pointu who remembers the council estate’s “golden years” during the 1960s, when the brand new building attracted middle-class families, with its view of the Eiffel Tower and its tree-lined walkways.

‘We wanted to give back’

One of the reasons Makooi and Lebard wanted to write the book was to help rehabilitate Clichy-sous-Bois’s reputation, tarnished by years of bad press, by highlighting the town’s riches. The pair grew up in a suburb not far from Clichy-sous-Bois in the Seine-Saint-Denis region, known locally as the 9-3 (or “neuf trois” after the administrative number of the department or region). They said they owed it to their home to set the record straight.

“The 9-3 provided us with a good public education, friends, culture and diversity. We wanted to give back some of what it gave us,” Lebard said.

“We began our investigation around the same time Eric Zemmour published the controversial book ‘The French Suicide’. The France he talks about, that of decline, of fear, of mistrust, is not the one we know,” Lebard said. “The media discourse shouldn’t be dominated by people with closed-minded, divisive and stigmatising comments. We don’t need to be pitted against each other.”

The two journalists, however, said they were careful not to paint an overly flattering portrait of Clichy-sous-Bois.

“We wanted to show Clichy’s riches, but we didn’t want to portray a Disney story. We said when things were unpleasant, when we were afraid,” Makooi explained.

Far from glossing over the difficulties of life in Clichy-sous-Bois, Makooi and Lebard detail the nagging sense of poverty, inequality and isolation many residents said they have experienced. In one chapter entitled “How I gained 10 kilos in Clichy”, the two journalists write about the challenges of maintaining a balanced diet, making a direct link between poverty and obesity.

Hope for the future

Since the 2005 riots and the media frenzy that ensued, Clichy-sous-Bois has changed considerably.

“The metal bars have disappeared [from windows], there are fewer tower blocks being built, solar panels have been installed, transport has improved, there is a brand new police station and a new employment centre that are all now a part of the landscape,” Makooi and Lebard said.

But unemployment remains high (around 25 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 24), while the Chêne-Pointu council estate continues to crumble and plans to extend the metro are perpetually delayed, most recently to 2025.

In 2025, Fatou’s son will be 18-years-old. By then, he may have watched the construction of the Tour Médicis, a cultural housing project launched by Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin this summer. The Chêne-Pointu may have also finally been bought and renovated by Clichy-sous-Bois, which may also finally be considered a part of Greater Paris.

“I’m really curious to see what will happen,” said Makooi, who plans to open a writing studio with Lebard in Clichy-sous-Bois. “It would be a poetic ending to things, but above all, a pretext to go back!”

>>> This article was adapted from the original in French

Date created : 2015-10-26

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