Bringing Peace in Paris
by Frank Renout
Mehdi Bigaderne lost a childhood friend in the civil unrest of five years ago that began in Clichy-sous-Bois, a poor commune in an eastern suburb of Paris. Still, he rejected confrontation, choosing instead to build bridges between youths and society. He now serves in the Clichy-sous-bois city council. Says Bigaderne, “Burning cars does not solve problems.”
Mehdi Bigaderne enters The Hôtel de Ville, Clichy-sous-bois’ city hall, tosses his black jacket on a chair, hears what country his visitor is from and opens up. “I know Holland well,” he says with a big smile, adding in broken Dutch with a French accent that he speaks a little Dutch, having lived in two small Dutch towns.
His parents regularly sent him to Holland for long stretches of time, he says, to stay with a Dutch “guest family” and grow up in “different” circumstances: “Well, life was not great here in Clichy. So my parents sent me to Holland.”
Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb east of Paris, has become a worldwide symbol of the evils of the French suburbs: the banlieues that became a synonym for “bad areas”. When riots broke out among the mostly immigrant youths, Bigaderne turned into a mediator. While many of his peers roamed the streets and threw firebombs at the police, he chose to preach the need for calm.
France had kept quiet for decades about unemployment and poor housing in the banlieues, about immigration and language problems in the troubled high-rise buildings, about crime and drugs in the slums. In October of 2005, however, this simmering social and political pot boiled over. Following an alleged police chase, two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted while hiding in a power substation. Their deaths set off riots in Clichy, and then all over France. For three long weeks, all banlieues in France seemed to be burning. To most of the world, it was just a televised spectacle of burning cars. But the banlieu riots left painful and lasting scars on the population of Clichy-sous-Bois.
“I was attending university, but I was also a youth worker then,” says Bigaderne, who was born in the neighbourhood. “I was 23, and I remember visiting my mother that night, to celebrate her birthday. We had just finished the Ramadan meal when I heard that two kids had died. Soon, I learned that one of them was a friend, Bouna. I’ve known his brother since our school days.
“I went outside and I immediately saw cars burning and groups of kids waiting for the police. The police and the kids fought hard that night. It was really violent. We’re talking about young kids here — 12 or 13, 17 maybe. Those were Zyed’s and Bouna’s ages, as well: 12 or 13. I did understand the anger. But when I saw them wanting to burn the school, I said, ‘No, not the school. It’s there for young people. The school is good; you can’t attack the school.’”
Bigaderne’s moderate stance paid off. He and other youth workers visited people’s homes and spoke with the children. Thanks in part to their efforts; the violence in Clichy-sous-Bois came to a halt relatively soon, while it continued for weeks in other parts of France.
“Why did I choose mediation while others chose to set cars on fire? People have different characters, different temperaments,” said Bigaderne. “And, of course, I had been a youth worker for a while. Look, had I been 12 or 13 myself; I might have done what the kids did.
“I was angry too, but I was able to step back because of my work. It was my job to set up projects with the kids and solve problems together. I was sad, too. But I told these boys, ‘It might feel good to burn cars; it might bring relief. But you don’t solve the problem that way.’ And they listened because they knew me. The boys knew I was from the neighbourhood.”
It started as street diplomacy for Bigaderne, but it quickly turned into serious analyses. “We read about the supposed causes of the banlieu riots,” Bigaderne says. “The newspapers wrote it was immigration, polygamy, even rap music. It was everything’s and everyone’s fault — except the politicians and their policies. So, a group of youths from Clichy decided to do something. We wanted to change public perception, this idea that the problems were really our own fault. It turned into a non-profit group: AC Le Feu.”
This circle of friends grew into a forceful group representing the people living in the banlieus. Across the country, they organised ways for people from the slums to be heard, and to draw attention to what Bigaderne calls the “real” problems in the neighbourhoods.
The problem was not the immigrants, AC Le Feu and Bigaderne told politicians and the media. The problem was that these kids were being discriminated against when they applied for jobs with their foreign-sounding names. The problem was not the young drug dealers, they said. The problem was that 40 percent of the banlieu youths were unemployed, without any job prospects.
“So, I was active in AC Le Feu, but at some point I didn’t just want to be the person asking others to do things for him,” Bigaderne recalls. “I wanted to take action myself. But immigrant kids are always being told that politics is not for us. When I was little, I viewed a city commissioner like the president of France. I mean to be in politics you needed the right credentials, to go to the elite schools, and all that, right?
“Clichy’s city council was not at all representative at that point. Some 80 percent of the population lived in working-class neighbourhoods, but not the council members. When the riots broke out in 2005 we noticed that some of them didn’t even know our neighbourhood! That bothered me. How could these people represent us?”
France held presidential elections in 2007, followed by parliamentary elections. AC Le Feu supported two of its own candidates. “It was symbolic; we knew we couldn’t win,” says Bigaderne. “But we did end up second. Then we talked about the municipal elections, and people were divided. Should we take part or not?
“We finally decided to do it, but as one group, as a collective, without alliances with other parties. We presented ourselves as civilian candidates, and I think that worked. We formed an independent list. We won a few seats, and that gave us the freedom to let our voices be heard in the city council.”
Bigaderne then became a city commissioner in Clichy-sous-Bois. But he admits that, five years after the banlieus riots, little has changed in the town. Unemployment remains high, many children do not finish school and people have been waiting for years for new housing.
“Young people tell me that nothing changes, that it’s all the same,” Bigaderne says. “I tell them, ‘If you want change, do it yourself. Sitting back with your arms crossed won’t do anything.’ But it does take time, it’s true.
“When I entered politics, I didn’t say, ‘Vote for me. I will perform magic and everything will get better.’ I said, ‘This is a first step.’ It continues to be tough to tell kids in Clichy that they should believe in France and do their best, if they feel they get nothing in return. Every day, we try to convince kids to have and keep faith in French politics, in the French justice system, in French values. But it is becoming tougher every day, because so little has changed five years later.
“Still, I am convinced that real change, real improvement of life in Clichy, can only happen with the legitimate means available. Not burning cars, but taking part in politics. That’s the only way to create change.”
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