Shout from the Suburbs
Paris is a city known for its elegance and beauty.
But away from the bright lights of the Champs d’Elysees there is another reality. It is one of marginalisation, social deprivation and unrest. The suburbs of Paris, often dubbed ‘ghettos’, have a large concentration of ethnic minorities and a high rate of unemployment.
In November 2007, rioting erupted in the suburb of Villiers-le-Bel following the death of two teenagers killed when they were hit by a police car.At the time of the riots, Ali Soumaré was asked by the victim’s families to act as their spokesman.
That experience led him to start a revolution of his own: to run as a candidate for the Socialist Party in the French regional elections of 2010.
To stand a chance of winning in the regional elections, Ali Soumaré went out onto the streets to meet voters, listen to their problems and seek solutions.
“Ali has fought for socialism for a long time,” says Dominique Lefebvre, the mayor of Cergy. “He joined the party in 2002 in Val D’Oise, and has been in charge of Villers-le-Bel since 2005. He is a politician who represents today’s French youth. He knows these suburbs and the poorer areas because he grew up there. He is the right candidate to establish dialogue and good relations with the people there.”
Ali Soumaré’s election campaign soon came to the notice of his political adversaries, and members of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), France’s ruling party, launched a smear campaign against Soumaré.
They stirred up questions about his past and raised doubts about his abilities.
“They said I must be a substitute for Paris Saint Germain football club …. They accused me of working my way up through favouritism …. They described me as a ‘repeat offender’ and delinquent. Imagine, they’re making criminal accusations against me. I had a minor conviction in 1999 which was dropped under the statute of limitations. They obtained documents and called them ‘Ali’s criminal file’. The prosecutor’s office investigated one of the accusations and judged it a case of mistaken identity. I was cleared. The whole issue was called ‘The Soumaré Affair’. It was very personal,” says Soumaré.
The so-called Soumaré Affair drew the attention of the media. News channels could not get enough of the topic, with some reports adding fuel to an already inflammatory situation. Many people in France saw a direct parallel between the sensationalist media coverage of the 2007 rioting in Villiers-le-Bel and the media campaign against Soumaré three years later.
The accusations and attacks against Soumaré did not turn the voters away and in the regional elections, he won 57 per cent of the votes.
“It is important to see individuals, who grew up in the suburbs and came from poor and multi-racial areas, becoming political representatives. Because they are part of a minority and from the suburbs. It is quite important for these communities to have an official representative inside the French political arena. This has never happened before,” says socialist Didier Lapeyronnie.
Soumaré may have succeeded with a majority of the vote in the 2010 regional elections, but the mood on the street after the vote remained divided - questioning multiculturalism and the very essence of what it is to be French.
“The problem in France today is that we talk a lot about skin colour. The problem is not only about skin colour. The French football team is predominantly made up of black players. They play for France. I think France has a moral problem. It can’t see intelligent people with a different skin colour. Why do blacks and Arabs with high qualifications work for low salaries? Because they don’t want the media to say ‘Today, blacks, Arabs, Indians and Turks represent France in more than one domain’,” says Thibault Bacca, a suburbs resident.
French residents of immigrant origin have long complained that police single them out for identity checks and arrest. In 2007, an independent study by experts confirmed French police widely use ethnic profiling as a tactic of stop, search and arrest.
“Some French people are suspects and accused just because of their origins.This is unacceptable. As a citizen of this republic I feel insulted every time one of us is stigmatised because of his origin, name or colour,” says Benoit Hamon, a Socialist Party spokesperson.
With reports of France facing a significant resurgence in racism, some grassroots organisations are standing up and working to fight discrimination. Job discrimination is a leading source of frustration in France’s suburbs where unemployment is so prevalent.
“Discrimination against people from the suburbs is quite obvious on both economic and social levels, as well as in the quality of services and facilities. This must end, especially with these young people who were born here. In some cases they speak no other language apart from French. They studied and graduated here,” says lawyer Houcine Bardim.
Antagonism heightened when in 2010 President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that France would strip French nationality from any immigrant caught using violence against police or public officials. In August 2010, a team of United Nations experts reported that France was facing a significant resurgence in racism.
Following his win in the regional elections, Soumaré was both clear-headed and optimistic about what would be needed to make a difference in neglected areas such as the suburbs of Paris.
He says: “Development projects are needed to move beyond this dire situation and eliminate alienation and discrimination. These are the challenges that must be at the forefront of our plans. Particularly in terms of professional development and helping young people to be part of the job market. There are some procedures already in place but they aren’t applied to benefit the right people. We must address the faultlines in French society and do everything to overcome them. We must talk about the issues of inequality and reducing the gap between rich and poor.”