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Five years after riots, Paris suburb is a neglected powder keg

The death of two teenagers in 2005 set suburban France ablaze. Five years on, and despite government promises to invest in the run-down estates, little has changed at Clichy-sous-Bois, the focal point of the 2005 riots.


It is five years this week since Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, were electrocuted and killed after they climbed into an electricity relay station to hide from the police.

Their deaths, in the notorious eastern Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, sparked outrage throughout France’s suburban underclass.

There followed three weeks of rioting, car burning, looting of shops and daily confrontations with police.

The suburbs, and especially the run-down estates (known as “cités”), overnight produced a grim new image of France for the rest of the world – one of violence, poverty, anger and a marked failure to integrate the country’s large second- and third-generation immigrant population.

The government promised to act. Billions of euros were earmarked to improve the lot of these neighbourhoods and their residents.

But community leaders say little has changed. Suburbs like Clichy-sous-Bois remain a powder keg of pent-up frustration compounded by poor housing, chronic poverty and rampant unemployment.

A failure of justice

Five years on, the two police officers, charged with “failing to help a person in mortal danger” (all French citizens are obliged by law to help people in peril) have yet to be tried.

The regional prosecutor's office sought last month to drop the charges against them, saying there was not enough evidence to show that the officers knew the teens were inside the power station when they died.

And when investigating judges decided to override the request, state prosecutors, in a pre-trial review, appealed against holding a trial. The case is once more stuck in legal limbo.

Clichy-sous-Bois deputy mayor Olivier Klein is exasperated.

“This episode simply stretches out a procedure that has already gone on far too long,” he tells FRANCE 24. “Justice must be seen to be following its due course. There must be an independent and impartial inquiry. It is vital that the people living here, and the dead teenagers’ families, know absolutely what happened.”

He adds: “I believe that only a full criminal trial will be able to accomplish this.”

Housing – a picture of misery

It isn’t just the court proceedings that are stuck in the mud.

Despite five billion euros being earmarked for suburban regeneration, for many of the inhabitants nothing at all has changed.

Some new buildings of five or six storeys have sprung up in new estates at the edge of Clichy-sous-Bois. These new projects, costing 600 million euros, comprise 2,111 new lodgings built on the foundations of demolished tower blocks.

“For those lucky enough to find themselves in these new buildings, life has changed,” says Olivier Klein. “But for the vast majority there has been no improvement.”

At the Chene Pointu estate, near where Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré died, residents are still living in an environment that would best be described as a high-rise slum.

Top-floor residents have to climb ten flights of stairs. The lifts have been out of action for years.

The stairwells are a picture of misery and degradation, as are many of the apartments – rife with damp and peeling paintwork because of leaks. Often there is no hot water.

Many of these flats are owned by slum landlords who ruthlessly exploit vulnerable tenants, often “sans-papiers” (unregistered, literally without documents) and poor families.

Some 6,000 people live in the two tower blocks that comprise the Chene Pointu estate, almost a quarter of the population of Clichy-sous-Bois.

“We are not living any better than we were five years ago – in some cases the situation is much worse,” says François Taconet, who heads an association campaigning for the rehabilitation of the estate.

Taconet says that landlords and apartment owners had only voted to go ahead with renovations at the beginning of 2010. The contractors were only identified in September.

The aim is to repair the lifts, roofs and access points to the two tower blocks.

But no one knows when the work will actually begin.

Chronic unemployment and failing schools

A quarter of the working-age population of Clichy-sous-Bois is on the dole. A third of people under 24 are out of work. In some estates the level is closer to 40%.

And yet there is no job centre (where the unemployed can sign on for their benefits and get employment counselling) in the town. For that they have to go to neighbouring Raincy.

Schools, essential to job prospects, leave much to be desired.

Olivier Klein despairs that teachers who find themselves in such grim working conditions get out as quickly as they can.

“There needs to be a policy in place to incentivise teachers to stick around,” he says. “When the teachers leave they take with them their projects and also educational continuity.”

He adds: “In one of the town’s schools, the head teacher, the head of discipline and student planning, as well as 25 teachers quit at the end of the last academic year. How can a school maintain long-term educational projects under such conditions?”

On top of these problems, funding for special educational projects out of school hours was taken out of the hands of the local authority and transferred to the state.

As a result, says Olivier Klein, “extra help for students has fallen while class sizes have ballooned…”

Glimmers of hope keep a lid on a powder keg

Despite the stagnation of Clichy-sous-Bois, some projects do exist.

The suburb now has a police station. Locals have been pleading for one for 30 years.

A bus line has been set up between Clichy and Charles de Gaulle Airport, where many of the residents who do have jobs are employed.

“But Clichy-sous-Bois needs so much more than one bus line to give it the access it needs to truly open up,” says Olivier Klein.

To make it to Paris by public transport (the capital is just 12 kilometres away) requires a gargantuan effort, although a new tramline linking the suburbs to Paris should be open by 2015, if things are unexpectedly on schedule.

A new metro line going all the way to the suburbs is also in the pipeline – for 2025, and then only if plans are formalised.

But none of this is enough. “We are living on a powder keg. We are constantly working to make the calm we have right now as lasting as possible," says Olivier Klein.

“But we are worried for the future.”

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