Celestin Banya’s apartment in the grim, crowded Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois was burglarized three times in one week this summer. The last time, he waited three hours for the police to arrive.
“We have cowardly police who are afraid of everyone and do nothing,” says Banya, 48, a construction worker who came to France from Zaire about three decades ago.
It’s been two years since angry black and Arab youths went on a rampage in this town of 29,000, igniting riots that spread across France. There’s still no sign of the police station then- President Jacques Chirac promised in 2005.
Now France has a new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, who promised to better integrate disaffected minorities. While he’s off to a flying start on several fronts—pushing changes in taxes and pensions, seeking a new treaty for the European Union, attending his first United Nations general session this week—his whirlwind approach after four months in office hasn’t reached Clichy-sous-Bois.
Claude Dilain, the Socialist mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, says there’s an invisible barrier that keeps France’s poor, immigrant communities in densely packed suburbs known as “banlieues” out of sight and out of mind. He calls it the Maginot Line, referring to the French defense that collapsed under German attack in 1940.
“Have you heard one single statement about the ‘banlieue’ from our new president?” Dilain asks. “Neither have I.”
On France’s troubled suburbs and the integration of minorities, Sarkozy’s initiative has been to appoint people of immigrant backgrounds to high-profile positions.
Rachida Dati, 41, daughter of North African immigrants, is minister of justice. Senegalese-born Rama Yade, 30, is secretary of state for human rights.
Fadela Amara, whose parents are Algerian, is secretary of state for urban affairs. Sarkozy has charged her with devising a plan for all issues related to low-income projects. Presentation of the results will include a conference chaired by the president at a date not yet determined, says Julia Pronzato, a spokeswoman for Amara.
Sitting in his office just blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, Chenva Tieu, a 43-year-old entrepreneur who came to France from Cambodia in 1975, says the appointments will have an impact.
“The kids in the banlieue need symbols,” says Tieu, co- founder of the 21st Century Club, a group of young professionals of immigrant origin committed to promoting diversity. “They feel excluded from France socially, economically and politically. They don’t speak perfect French. They don’t have the codes to Paris society. They need to see diversity at the top.”
Still, he says, Sarkozy must move beyond symbols if he is to win the confidence of new citizens: “If I see nothing else by January, I will be disappointed.”
Mayor since 1995, Dilain, 58, dismisses the new faces as “pure casting,” or window dressing that camouflages the absence of a real policy. He has been assured a police station by 2009. He is less sure about money promised to tear down La Forestiere and replace it with 1,700 new housing units.
Dilain says crime is up in Clichy-sous-Bois. In Seine- Saint-Denis, where the town is located, crimes against people, including assault and rape, jumped 8.3 percent in the year ended July 31, compared with a 2.5 percent rise nationally and a 2.2 percent drop in Paris, according to the Observatoire National de la Delinquance, a crime-statistics agency.
The number of property-related crimes in Seine-Saint-Denis per 1,000 inhabitants was 71.7, compared with 40.5 nationwide.
“Our situation is difficult and deteriorating,” Dilain says. “I have a feeling of being abandoned by the police. When they call, our residents are told, ‘The car isn’t there,’ or ‘Manage it yourselves,’ or simply, ‘Clichy-sous-Bois? You are not our priority.”’
Recent clashes in central Paris between bands of youths from the suburbs—including one last month at Pigalle, a block from the Moulin Rouge cabaret—have raised alarms about Los Angeles-style gangs emerging in France. Dilain says they could be a wake-up call for a society that has yet to absorb the lessons of 2005.