Dark Side of the City of Lights

In his sparkling white galabayya, the long flowing robe favored by North African men, and an ornately embroidered green cap perched jauntily on his head, Coulibaly Djogou looks the picture of imperturbable poise.

But the 47-year-old father of three is far from serene. "I'm scared," says the former social worker, making a sweeping gesture toward the bleak urban landscape around him. "I'm scared for my children, I'm scared for my property, I'm scared for me."

As if to prove his point, an enormous city truck stacked with burned-out cars pulls up behind him. With a gentle whirring, a gigantic metallic arm emerges from the truck and pulls up another singed car carcass parked on the street.

Nobody seems to notice the cleanup operation. Mothers and grandmothers, many of them veiled, go by with the evening's shopping. The neighborhood kids in track suits and sneakers hang around the street corners and fathers watch their little ones romp around the barren public compounds unperturbed.

This is Clichy-sous-Bois, a bleak suburb north of Paris. It's been Djogou's home for the past 21 years, since he left his native Mali for France. Clichy, as it is popularly known, is about 15 miles from downtown Paris, off the "peripherique" freeway that rings the city.

So Near, and Yet So Far From Paris

But Clichy-sous-Bois is a world away from Paris, the magnificent "City of Lights" of the tour guides. It's one of the bleak banlieues -- or suburbs -- around the French capital that few Parisians enter, or even want to enter. It's often called one of the "lost territories of the Republic," that an alarmingly high percentage of Parisians complain are inhabited -- even infested -- with hoodlums.

This, after all, is Paris, the romantic capital of the world, the bon vivant of European cities. Every night, the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde that frame the magnificent Champs-Elysees are lit up in a glorious pageant of architectural splendor. For 10 minutes on the hour after dusk the Eiffel Tower winks, glitters and glows in a spectacular display of illumination guaranteed to steal a visitor's breath away.

But in the northern banlieues, a very different sort of illumination has been lighting up the night skies.

For more than 10 consecutive nights, angry youths have been torching cars, buses, retail stores, showrooms, schools and police stations across the city's banlieues. Against the angry orange flames of discontent, the flashing lights of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances provide a blue strobe flicker of a state infrastructure shocked, almost paralyzed, by this display of urban wrath.

Accidental Electrocution of Two Teens Sparks Trouble

The troubles began in Clichy-sous-Bois on the night of Oct. 27, when two French youth of North African descent were accidentally electrocuted at an electricity sub-station. The families of Zyed Benna, a 17-year-old resident of Tunisian descent, and Bouna Traore, a 15-year-old student of Malian descent, say the teens were fleeing the police. French authorities, however, deny the claim and an official inquiry is currently under way. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, Djogou, like most residents of Clichy-sous-Bois, believe the boys were chased by the police. It's the characteristic lack of trust between banlieue residents and law enforcement officials that added fuel to the flames of widespread discontent.

As rumors of a police tear gas attack on a Clichy mosque made the rounds, the riots spread to neighboring and far-flung Paris suburbs as well as other French cities such as Nice, Lille, Marseille and Toulouse. By Saturday night, the unrest had reached Paris, when several cars were torched in the 17th district.

The toll is staggering: more than 4,300 vehicles have been burned, about 1,000 people arrested and 34 police officers injured, according to French Interior Ministry figures.

Stunned, the state machinery, the media, politicians and pundits struggled to understand this senseless destructive violence.

Horrified, But Not Surprised

But Marilou Jampolsky, a spokeswoman for the Paris-based pressure group SOS Racisme, says she isn't stunned by the recent mayhem. "I'm not surprised," she says the morning after French police said rioters in the suburb of La Courneuve fired live bullets at them.

"I'm horrified of course," she adds. "But I'm not surprised. There's been a high level of tension in the banlieues. SOS Racisme has warned the government about this a lot of times, but no one pays attention."

Indeed, the French shock over the recent banlieue burnings is surprising. Experts, community activists and immigration rights advocates -- of which there are plenty in France -- have been warning that the French Republic is failing its poor, mainly Muslim immigrants of North African descent at the risk of grave social upheaval.

By most accounts, the current violence is a manifestation of the inherent problems facing France's dearly held and passionately defended integration policy.

Racism: Illegal, But Widespread

Racial discrimination is banned in France. But in practice, it's widespread across the nation. Accurate discrimination figures are hard to come by in France since ethnic origins of employees, residential societies, even hate crime complainants cannot be recorded under French law. The estimated figures that do exist, however, are desultory.

While the overall unemployment rate for French university graduates for instance is 5.0 percent, the unemployment rate for "North African" university graduates is a whopping 26.5 percent.

According to CIA estimates, Muslims constitute between 5 percent and 10 percent of France's 60 million people. Yet all the members of parliament from mainland France are white.

France has innumerable governmental and nongovernmental organizations working on racial integration and immigrant rights issues. And yet, a subliminal, pervasive racism is apparent in the streets, upscale cafes, restaurants, housing blocks and business enterprises across Paris.

Muslims in French Corner Shops, Not Boardrooms

While French entrepreneurs of North African descent run a plethora of corner shops and halal stores in the downtrodden districts of Paris, unlike the United States and Britain, non-white businessmen are barely represented in corporate boardrooms across France.

According to a recent SOS Racisme report, discrimination is rampant in the French workplace, particularly for jobs involving contact with the public, such as the critical hospitality and retail industries.

"Some companies believe that to be responsible for marketing you must have roots in mainland France over several generations to understand the French consumer attitudes," the report said.

Discrimination is also rampant in housing, says Jampolsky. Landlords and real estate brokers routinely fail to rent or provide information to non-white buyers and renters. SOS Racisme receives innumerable complaints from victims of housing discrimination, many of which are dragged through the courts by the organization's voluntary lawyers.

"People think Arabs and black people make a lot of noise, that they have 25 children, that they're dirty," says Jampolsky. "It's amazing. They still have this old, outdated, racist image in their brains."

How French Is French?

Some experts believe the crux of the problem lies with France's integration policy. While countries such as the United States, Britain and Canada have embraced the "salad bowl" or "mosaic" metaphor, France -- like most of continental Europe -- has little patience for the "multiculturalism" of the "Anglophone" world, as it's known here.

Faced with mounting evidence of social discontent among its Muslim immigrant groups, political parties in European countries such as France, Germany and Denmark have been pushing for minority "integration measures." At stake, integration proponents say, lies the very "Europeanness" of Europe.

The combination of rising Islamic fundamentalism in recent times and the lack of women's rights in tradition-bound immigrant groups have fused to provide popular support for the integration model. Despite widespread international condemnation of the ban on the hijab (veil) and other "conspicuous" religious symbols in public schools last year for instance, the measure enjoys popular French support.

Social workers and activists working with France's Muslim immigrants however warn that the problem is not the "Frenchness" of the banlieue youth. Most, if not all, were born in France, have French citizenship, indeed they know of life in no other country besides France.

In the face of widespread economic and racial discrimination, the problem appears to be French society's failure to integrate its citizens of non-white descent. In the Clichy housing complex of La Forestière where Djogou lives, the very geography of the Soviet-style, graffiti-ridden complex belies the claim that France's integration policy is working.

Marc Couturier, 42, a longtime resident of La Forestière, remembers a time when Clichy-sous-Bois was considered a pleasant suburb to live in. Literally translated as "Clichy under the woods," Couturier remembers how his friends from Paris used to be impressed by the surrounding woodlands. The current urban malaise, he believes, is a result of civic and administrative neglect.

"There was a time when we could take the bus directly to Paris," he says. "Now we don't have that. We have to take two buses to reach the city. The only bus that comes here, the 147, shows up once in 45 minutes if you're lucky. There's no train station, there are no garbage cans, no playgrounds. When I take my children to Paris they stare, silent and slack-jawed, at the splendor of the city. For them, it's another world."

Attention at Last, But the Wrong Sort

But in the Hotel de Ville de Clichy-sous-Bois -- the French equivalent of a municipality -- Stephane Le Ho, the director general of services, says the administration is struggling to provide civic services.

"Ten years ago when I came to this city, it was bankrupt. The city was in debt," he says. "This used to be a middle-class area, but the middle class has left. This city is poor, its inhabitants are poor, they don't have money to pay taxes for the services they require, there's been no corporate investment here since we find it difficult to attract investment, it's a vicious circle of poverty."

Out in the municipality yard, a media jamboree is slowly unfolding. Satellite trucks ring the grounds, TV reporters touch up their makeup and camera crews focus on the story du jour.

Finally, Clichy-sous-Bois is getting the French public's attention. But Couturier and the other residents of La Forestière worry that it's the very wrong sort of attention. Couturier notes that even the French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly called the residents of the banlieue "racaille" -- a derogatory French word for scum -- and has called for the banlieues to be cleaned up by an industrial powerhouse.

After these riots, he says, it's going to be even more difficult for "people to see us as human beings worthy of dignity." Behind him, a graffiti message on a crumbling wall says it all. "Clichy-sous-Jungle," says the sign. The pleasant woods have given way to an urban jungle.