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THE MEDIATOR Traore goes looking for trouble in Clichy-sous-Bois — but when he finds it, he tries to calm things down

Restless Youth

Can France bring order to the streets and hope to the restive minorities of the banlieues?
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Posted Sunday, November 13, 2005; 9.20GMT
It's a damp, cold November night in the run-down Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The rioting that has consumed France for over two weeks began here, but tonight things are relatively calm. No cars are burning; no fire fighters are hosing down flaming Dumpsters; no gangs of hooded youths prowl the streets. Police vans cruise slowly along the narrow roads, but all they encounter is two young men in a heated argument outside one of the dilapidated high-rise apartment blocks. "They're talking about deporting immigrants!" shouts Paul, who moved to Clichy-sous-Bois from Congo when he was 2. "We aren't immigrants! We're French!" The other man bellows back, "They're not going to deport immigrants!" Agitated and upset, Paul gives the other guy a shove. And that's when Gouneidi Traore steps in.

Traore, 26, grew up in some of the other gritty projects like Clichy-sous-Bois that ring Paris, one of 15 children of a Malian street cleaner. He lives here with his girlfriend in a one-room apartment, a block away from his parent's flat. He works here, too, as a mediator hired by the local council. His job: to counsel the area's poor youth, and at night to look for potential trouble — and to stop it before it starts. When he sees that the argument over deportation could turn ugly, he positions himself between the two men, urging them to head on home. Traore deplores the violence that has racked France, but he knows firsthand the anger and resentment that fueled it. "If someone has a record with the police, he's finished," says Traore, who's tall and lean with a friendly yet authoritative manner. "They won't get a job. I tell them, 'Look, I've been through misery and I'm a bit integrated. I have my own apartment.' To them, I'm a success story."

France will need a lot more success stories like Traore's if it is to quell the rage burning across the country. The riots lit up some 300 towns and cities — over the weekend, clashes broke out in Lyons' city center and on the outskirts of Toulouse — and cast a harsh light on how France's ideal of equality has failed people from dreary banlieues like Clichy-sous-Bois. The state is officially color- and religion-blind, so successive French governments have refused to acknowledge, or even compile data on, racial or ethnic origins. There is a single, unified French identity; no combined identity of Algerian French or French Malian is recognized.

However well-intended, the doctrine proved less effective in practice. Assigned to initially inviting public-housing projects, immigrants, their children and grandchildren ultimately found themselves captives of places like Clichy-sous-Bois, segregated from white society and marginalized from economic and political life. Second- and third-generation French grew more disillusioned, more resentful and more alienated. It's an explosive socioeconomic mix that exists across Europe (see Outside Looking In), and has now erupted in France. The task ahead is to make the country's lofty rhetoric match reality. The young men behind the violence "are rioting, not because they hate the Republic," says Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist who has worked extensively with banlieue delinquents, "but because they want to be included in it."

Job opportunities would be a good start. Discrimination is illegal, but banlieue residents routinely report that they are turned away once a potential employer spots an Arabic name or undesirable postal code. To document the problem, Sorbonne sociologist Jean-François Amadieu sent identical résumés in response to more than 250 job ads; the only difference was that he gave some applicants Arab-sounding and others more "French" names. Résumés from white male applicants with French names elicited five times more job offers than those that could have come from North Africans. "There's a massive gap between what we say and what we do," says Amadieu.

Salem Sefrioui, 29, an architect living in the upscale 16th arrondissement of Paris, is one of the lucky few who have escaped the banlieue. Born in Casablanca, he grew up in Colombes outside Paris, but with the advantage of educated and supportive parents. They pulled all the strings they could to get him into the élite Lycée La Folie St. James in Neuilly, using his grandfather's more respectable address there. "I always make sure to include the fact that I speak Arabic on my CV," says Sefrioui. "I have two nationalities, not two half-nationalities. But my story might have been a different if I hadn't gotten out of Colombes."

Continued ...

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