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Les Minguettes

Anne-Marie Vaterlaus takes a look behind the facades of one of France's most notorious suburbs

The ride with the Bus number 36 takes a good hour. It goes from la Duchère, northwest of Lyon, through the sixth arrondissement and then straight south to the Vénissieux city hall and finally, a little uphill trip to the plateau of Les Minguettes. In the early morning in the 6th arrondissement, well dressed women walk their dogs between the Palais of the German general consulate and the Parc de la Tête d'Or. In Les Minguettes, a young woman takes her headscarf off as she goes past the entry barrier of the Jacques Brel highschool. In the 6th arrondissement, most people live in stately homes with standing lamps and gold frames on the wall. In Les Minguettes, they live in les tours et les barres, in roughly 40 apartment buildings with 15 or 16 floors and in living blocks, the largest of which look much like concrete dams. Precast concrete slab blocks, thrown up between 1963 and 1974 and officially calculated to last 20 years at best. Vénissieux is a community of 57 000, some 20 000 from the Minguettes. If you live here, you work at Renault or Bosch, or you drive taxi. And if you have your Andouillette for lunch at a restaurant down below in Vénissieux, you may be asked what in the world you're doing there. And if you answer that you're writing a report about life up there on the plateau, they laugh and say: put on a veil. Or: you don't have anything to worry about in daylight. Which means: you don't have anything to fear, yet. Because the school-skippers and hanger-outers, the Raschids and Samirs with their baseball caps and low slung jeans, these vessels of frustration and testosterone, they sleep during the day. There are people in Lyon who say the bus number 36 takes you into the heart of lawlessness. But that's not true.

Why Les Minguettes?, everyone asks in Les Minguettes and what they mean is, why is this press mama visiting us of all people? If she wants to take someone apart, she could have gone elsewhere, to Aulnay-sous-Bois for instance, where things were pretty hot in November 2005, or maybe to one of France's 750 so-called zones urbaines sensibles (ZUS). Is it not enough that since the very first upheavals in 1981, the Minguettes has done the rounds as the ghetto-brandname par excellence? At the time, the sons of the immigrant generation confronted police for the first time, cars were set on fire, lavabos and mattresses rained from windows. Les Minguettes became known in the press as the Bronx of Vénissieux and its image was history. For good, as they say today. And then they ask: how do you like it here? All the green up here is nice. And this view, you won't find one like it anywhere else. OK, sometimes the air stinks, we have the petro-chemicals from Feyzin to thank for that. But have you seen what all has been built here? They call it GPV, Grand Projet de Ville, the money comes from state actors, the project is led by the mayor: a direct tram connection all the way to Lyon, a few friendly apartment buildings with condominiums at dumping prices to create a little mixité sociale, a better social mix.

The hideous, green-grey mall near Avenue Jean-Cagne is to be torn down and replaced by a lovely, light-flooded one. Most of the high-rises by the Boulevard Lénine have been renovated, a few even have solar cells. Too bad, isn't it, that behind the façades, the social misery remains. Most people here live on the outer limits of poverty. Every third is unemployed. 72.3% are on welfare. They can survive, but as a rule, they can't get out. For one thing, there isn't enough social housing in France and for another, neither landlords nor employers want them. It was pretty calm in Les Minguettes in November 2005. The real violence is elsewhere: in the stigmatisation and discrimination for someone whose name is Raschid, who comes from les Minguettes and who's looking for a job and an apartment.

In his office on the top floor of city hall of Vénissieux, André Gerin, Communist mayor since 1985, crosses his arms in order to conserve energy and tries to appease - Madame, there are problems in every larger French Agglomeration! -, before he speaks sentences, upright like flagpoles: Social mix? Forget it. That was long ago, twenty years ago. Everyone who could afford it is long gone now.

The three middle schools? A catastrophe, far too removed from praxis. Today the unemployment rate for people under 25 is between 40 and 45 percent, ten years ago it was 35. More and more people are sinking into poverty. Three hundred families are likely to be thrown out of their social housing because they can't pay their rent, ten years ago the figure was 50. And on security: Il y a des poches où les valeurs de la République ne sont plus respectées. The black market thrives in these niches, foremost the drug trade. In these niches, fundamentalists preach renunciation of the majority society. People don't talk about problems like this in France, it's taboo. Except for Sarkozy, but he generalises. But I say: Il y a des poches. To be specific: four or five families, a mafia-like organisation, control the drug trade. Nearly ten percent of the population make pilgrimages to the dozen ground floor apartments and cellars that have been converted into prayer rooms. They have to get out into the light of day. I have a project: a large mosque. By when? Five years time.

You ask me what will become of Les Minguettes in the long run. A ghetto. No, it's not that bad yet but the situation is getting worse by the year.

The great mosque as a preventative measure against fundamentalism. It has been talked about sporadically for years, as Le Monde knows. The topic is explosive because Vénissieux is unlucky. Two of its imams, both uneducated Salafists with stone age views, have become the objects of national fame. In 2004 Abdelkader Bouziane, polygamist and father of sixteen, was deported (news story); in the fall of 2006, Chellali Benchellali (news story). His sons Menad and Mourad also made the headlines. Menad was sentenced to ten years in jail for his membership in a terrorist network. Mourad spent two months in an Afghan training camp, then three years on Guantánamo. His case before a Parisian court is scheduled to be resumed this May.

Andre Gerin is a busy man. He is not only mayor of Vénissieux, he also sits as representative of the Département Rhône in the national assembly. He likes to make decisions on his own rather than involving us, the people say. Did he mention that 160 cars burn in France almost every night, they ask? He did. And that Les Minguettes breaks all records in this respect? They light one up almost a night. Who are the arsonists? Bored young men but not only, says Daniel Bastide, director of the neighbourhood help group TOP. Occasionally someone wants to make good on his insurance. Or he sets his neighbour's car on fire to liven things up. Because his kids make too much noise, for example. People are stressed. They've forgotten how to talk with one another. They store everything up until they can't take anymore. TOP goes out on patrol but also comes when you call them, assuming there's something that can be done on the verbal level. Otherwise they're handed over to police. No, there are no police stations on the plateau, it would be too much work to be repairing them all the time. You have to realise that Les Minguettes is tribal land. The Police nationale patrols at night and if things get really hot, they call the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, the riot squads.

Said came back. Amazing, actually. He grew up in an apartment tower in Démocratie, the quarter on the edge of the plateau. His father was brought over from Algeria to Lyon in 1947. Workers were needed in the coal mines, hard workers. His father, Saïd said, died there. In 1994, the apartment towers in Démocratie were demolished, all ten of them. They had stood vacant for long enough, the first floors walled shut. A renovation project had failed due to funding problems. Saïd moved away. Now he is living in Vénissieux again, working for TOP and keeping an eye on the kids up on the plateau. The second and third generations that don't have much of a perspective. Their stress. Their violent disposition. It could boil up again, any time, worse than last time.

The Anglo Saxon national doctrine still glorifies social diversity. The multi-cultural canon in the USA and Britain asserts that each individual finds happiness in his own cultural tradition. Not so in France. Communitarianism is what the French call it disparagingly: first you claim an ethnic and religious identity, then you're French. No, according to the official credo, Paris is neither London nor New York. There will never be anything like a Little India or Chinatown in France. And so the inhabitants of Les Minguettes are only 30% foreigners and the rest French. The statistics don't show - at least not at first glance - that most of the latter are of Maghreb origin. Let's call it a little deceipt of the French Dream: that it's enough to be a French citizen to be automatically considered a citoyen à part entière. You could also say: you have to hold the principle of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité just high enough that everyone can march under it comfortably.

Azzedine is a young Frenchman who likes stylish clothes. He says clothes are important. But Azzedine's life is a construction site where the work has stopped. That might sound good, but it's not. On the other hand: how could he have looked for work with the worries he has? Yes, he knows it was stupid to blow off his appointment at the employment office, he's going to call and apologise. But there were problems at home with his parents, he had to move out. And squatting and taking showers at the swimming pool are not especially good for his concentration. But now there's a new light at the end of the tunnel: welfare and a little apartment in Pyramide, the quarter next to the sports field. Not bad. He's going to have to make a list: on one side the welfare payments, on the other the expenses. With luck there will be a few part-time jobs on the income side so he can get things under control. Azzedine is 25, he's through middle school – that was a while ago. Most importantly, Azzedine has a plan: he's going to be a crane operator, take off to Saudi Arabia for five years and come back a rich man. A really rich man: four wives and four cars. Azzedine laughs. To make sure that we understand each other: the thing with the four wives was a joke. Pour le moment, he says, je me sens un peu strange. He knows he must not forget to pay the rent on his apartment on time, otherwise he'll be thrown out.

At night Les Minguettes transform into the Skyline and the concrete buildings become a curtain of lights. Then the people from TOP go out to see if everything is alright, walking up and down the empty, brightly-lit streets, reporting a streetlight that might be kaput to headquarters, ever faithful to the broken window theory according to which there should be no signs of decay in public space. They're still playing on the soccer field, the kids from the sports club, and Gérard Martin, the director of the cinema "Gérard Philipe" has "Indigènes" on tonight's program. The "Gérard Philipe" is, incidentally, the only cinema in all of Vénissieux. And the fact that it is in Les Minguettes makes everything all the more complicated, as Gérard Martin explains. Because up here, you really have to mobilise people or else they just disappear. The youth go to Multiplex cinemas in Lyon. The elderly stay at home. And the people from down below, from Vénissieux, who want to have a nice evening, maybe catch a bite to eat, then a movie, then a drink and a chat, those people don't set foot on the plateau. For one thing, they're afraid, for their cars as well as themselves, and for another, there's nothing here. No restaurant, no bar, nothing.

On Saturday there's something. The big market with coriander and tomatoes, meat, most of it halal, and fish. Plus religious texts and very stylish boots for 30 euros. People meet, chat and hang out. Black African beauties with painted finger nails and tight T-shirts. White housewives on the bustle. Black and white, and Beur of course: old couples, he in a light grey suit, she in a traditional kaftan. Young Muslim women, many with head-scarves, some with niqabs. Fundamentalism is on the rise, dramatically, especially since 9/11, the people explain. Ever more niqabs. But with the head-scarves you have to differentiate. Some women wear them voluntarily. Because it pisses off the fromages blancs.

By the way, nothing happened that night in Les Minguettes, at least nothing out of the ordinary. Other than the sudden stench of something petrochemical. Tires! So that's how it smells when a car burns.

The elderly can still remember. It used to be nice, they say, more mixed socially. Lively, neighbourly. Today, everyone just looks out for himself. The social misery is to blame. For which, in turn, unemployment is to blame. For which, in turn discrimination and an over-regulated labour market are to blame. It all started with the wide-reaching changes of the late 70s, with the automatisation and restructuring of the industrial sector and the massive lay-offs that went along with it.

It used to be that an apartment in Les Minguettes was pure luxury for a family from the country or from an inner city quarter. The rooms were light and roomy, there was electric light and, for the first time, a private bathroom with a toilet. People stayed a while, worked and saved and then bought a single family house with their savings. The socially weakest, foreign families for the most part, stayed back and those who came later weren't much better off. In 1981 came the first upheavals. And two years later, la marche pour l'égalité et contre le racisme, conceived by a group of people from Les Minguettes and later commonly referred to as la marche des beurs: 100 000 people marching in Paris. The reception by Mitterrand. The fight for immigrants' rights. An old story.

Djamel Ladghem knows a thing or two about families from the Maghreb. What happens, for instance, when the father is unemployed and loses his authority. What becomes of the children after a divorce, when the mother has to manage alone. The ordering principle that is simply not there. The emotional closeness, all too close. Sometimes the kids falter. Then it's likely that they land in Djamel's office or in the Mission locale. And Djamel helps them to carry on, often in tiny steps and for three or four years. Some, say Djamel, are emotionally ill, depressed. Others are in desperate need of a roof over their heads. And in terms of a job, many would like to have two birds in the bush but have to satisfy themselves with one in the hand. Those with the worst chances are the poorly educated with foreign backgrounds. Sure, says Djamel, we now have the anonymous CV which might make it possible for Salima or Hichem to make it to a job interview. The Mission locale has 22 employees and a good reputation. Djamel says they wouldn't say no to a little staffing and financial help.

Anyone who has work leaves. Ghassan goes to the airport St-Exupéry, where he has a job at the luggage counter, un boulot CDD, which means contrat à durée déterminée, a job with an expiry date. With a CDD under your sleeve, you're likely to stay in the kid's room in France. The bank won't give you a loan, the landlord not a single cell. 73 percent of all first jobs are CDD, and only half of them turn into a long-term job, a CDI or contrat à durée indéterminée. Ghassan would actually like to get away from the luggage and become a steward for Air France. But to do that, he would need a few things that he doesn't have, like a high school diploma. Better to stay put and hope for a CDI.

A propos jobs: there might be a few ones opening up, about fifty of them, and right on the plateau. But it's not for sure. Paris made Les Minguettes a zone franche urbaine (a special economic zone) in 2004, offering tax breaks to small and mid-sized businesses and now 25 businesses are set to go. But there's little hitch, says Stéphan Véran from the Mission Economie down below the city hall: only a third of the employees has to come from a zone urbaine sensible. That could be Les Minguettes or one of the other ZUS in the greater Lyon area. And that only applies if the boss is employing new people. He might come with his own people, pay no tax for a few years and then move on. Up to him.

The state should invest in so-called human capital, the people say, not new tram connections. In education. Smaller classes, well-paid teachers. Make sure that Samir, in grade six, can read. And make it clear to him where he might have a chance at a decent job.

It's all a question of self-censorship, says Denise Chotteau-Adalid, principal of the Jacques Brel High School. Pupils think they're not entitled to success, work, a satisfying life; they schlep this attitude all the way through high school. With their grades, Jacques Brel's students consistently land at the bottom of the list of high-schools in all three Départements. How can that be changed? Hard to say. Most of the parents come from uneducated classes and only show themselves when they're forced to.

The daughters - two thirds of the student body are female - are kept behind lock and key when they're not at school. Jacques Brel is a bit below Les Minguettes and it's quite deliberate that only half of it lies in a zone d'éducation prioritaire (ZEP), because ZEP can't be understood as a privileged education zone. While the classes are supposed to be smaller, with a maximum of thirty pupils and a few university students as tutors, the more significant factor is image and it's bad. ZEP means: beware, underclass. Those who can, send their children to a private school or a high school in Lyon to learn Chinese and thus get around the carte scolaire, the obligatory school district regulations. The suburbs are a catch 22.

Denise Chotteau-Adalid says that she thinks the upheavals in November 2005 were a wake-up call and that society is ready to change. And she fears that young people are getting a little impatient.

In the afternoon, there's an orientation conference. The Grande Ecole de Commerce, one of these elite schools like the Sciences Po in Paris, is offering a two-year preparatory class to the best students from Jacques Brel at a highschool in downtown Lyon. They are welcome to apply. How should a teacher get students interested in something as elite as a Grande Ecole when they have been imbibing no future since birth? Nothing theoretical, they agree, no grand addresses, no power-point presentations which are about as boring as a bad DVD. Better to get concrete right away; where are they going to get the money to cover the school costs? Will they find work faster after? And how does a suburban kid feel among all those down-town snobs?

Let the journalist come. But they don't want to be named individually, only as a collective: the Tuesday group and Vivre aux Minguettes, the book that they wrote together. For 16 years they have been meeting, the inhabitants of the apartment tower on the Boulevard Lénine. They sit in a circle for an afternoon and whoever wants to speak, can. At best about the problems that they all share. About the ancient elevator that always gets stuck. And the mould in the walls. Or the cockroaches, those masters of survival. And now the heating costs are going up. They have to see what can be done. Something has to be done, that's the point. Together. Instead of fighting on their own, feeling small, giving up. There are so many problems, they say almost happily, it'll never be boring here. They've already scored a few points on the powerful landlord, you can read about it in their book. And then the ask if would be possible to not write only bad things about Les Minguettes, because it's their home. And then there is tea and cake and at the end they sing L'important, c'est d'être ensemble, and suddenly things get pretty kitchy and you think you get a sense of what it really means to live here.


Anne-Marie Vaterlaus is a freelance writer.

This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on December 9, 2006.

translation: nb

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