Many Roma inhabitants in Paris are living in the worst human conditions imaginable, a fact which goes completely unnoticed
It was only a month ago. I was at a crossroads between two worlds.
Picture what I saw: the luminous city of light, the magnificent streets of the glorious Champs Elysees, the coils of sparkling light encasing the Eiffel tower, and at the stroke of midnight, the sparks that surround the tower with an incredulous sense of magic and awe.
This is the typically romantic illusion of a harmonious and radiant city. Yet with the very same glow that emanates from the Parisian landmarks, I also saw behind the spotlight. I witnessed how the poor can be deprived of any light, crippled to the grimy corners of the slums. They cannot see the light of their own city; instead they are tucked neatly away from the eyes of the world. The extent of this paradoxical city of light will end up darkening the future of Paris. I realised that this was not merely about poverty, but about the deeper, more problematic causes which fuel these conditions.
For me, Paris had to meet high expectations, and it certainly surpassed that, becoming one of the best, as well as the worst, cities I have ever experienced. During the first three days of the interfaith training that I was undergoing in Paris – named “Acting together to tackle poverty in Europe”, and jointly organised by Forum for European Muslim Youth and Student Organisation (FEMYSO) and Ecumenical Youth Council of Europe (EYCE) – I was exposed to the real Paris. The shock came from visiting various communities of the poor and homeless Roma community by Porte de Bagnolet. Here, there dwelled homeless minorities from Bulgaria, Romania, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, as well as many other neighbouring and post-colonial societies. They had arrived in Paris looking for work but found themselves at a dead end. Instead, they had sheltered themselves and their families in drastically overcrowded empty garages with hard boxes and tins. Worst of all, they had to cope without proper sanitation or water supply.
Yet my strongest memory was the reaction of the children when they saw foreigners, or just people from outside their compound. This was a great moment: the happiness on their faces as they played with strangers’ phones cannot be reproduced. At this point, it dawned to me that these children were deprived even of the space and resources to play.
As George Orwell aptly put it: “Quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing-orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse carts.”
This was Orwell’s recollection of Paris in 1929 during his initial shock after witnessing the slums and, yet, after so many years, Paris does it again. It remains one case that is baffling to comprehend – richest of the rich with a growing population on street corners relying on soup kitchens. The Latin Quarter that Orwell frequented 80 years ago or so remains iconic, with chic pavement cafes full of contented people, snug in their silk designer suits. The air is sprayed with fragrances by Abercrombie’s signature perfume (I didn’t believe it at first) and the smell of sweet crepes which, together, makes Paris an irresistible sensation to tickle all the senses. However to put things into context, beyond the Paris ring-road (the Boulevard Périphérique), especially to the north, east and south, there is a different world – a world of tower blocks, sink schools, unemployment, soaring especially amongst minorities, and police brutality.
Most of the problems are claimed to have been cause by the minorities, the scapegoat for failings of the system. Such sentiments were fuelled by Sarkozy’s hard-line stances on immigration, assimilation and “security”. It was this fervour that resulted in unrest and, later, full-scale riots in 2005. In doing so, Sarkozy came to embody the hostility that many of the Français de souche — that is, French people whose ancestors have lived in France for centuries — now feel toward the Français issus de l’immigration, the French people whose parents or grandparents immigrated from Morocco, sub-Saharan Africa or the islands of the Indian Ocean. The corrosive division between “indigenous” and “foreigners” is no doubt an extension of the dichotomy of the Orientalist discourse, which has governed modern colonial French history.
With my polarised experiences of the situation in France, it seems that this poverty is not one that is due to economic instability or the recession. These situations are the results of something far more ingrained. Paris is a city with an active and normalised marginalisation of minorities. The attempt to subdue them to become subordinate, both mentally and socially, has resulted in unexpected symptoms. This elicits different responses, making the cause and effect indistinguishable. Thus, the economic issues are not the real issue, but are the symptoms of a greater disease. That large ailment is an ethnic dissatisfaction based on a racial hierarchy. It is with time, power and legitimisation that such racial discrimination becomes standardised and clouded by class stratification. The centre of these problems becomes religion and, most recently, Islam, which appears as an alleged attack on France’s Laïcité. Recent French policies have expressed these stances, revealing anti-Islamic sentiments in a way to cover racial insecurities.
Meanwhile, the problems of poverty are being plugged by religious community groups like Amatullah and the local churches. Amatullah, for example, is a pioneering initiative started by a woman named Marina who saw the need to feed the hungry homeless. They conduct an ostentatious task of raising charity by cooking and feeding the weak of the community. But the idea that feeding the homeless will create a form of ‘complacency’ is not new, admitted the founder of Amatullah. This raises a question: for how long will they feed a whole community at the failings of the government? And what impact will that have on these homeless people, as well as the society of Paris as a whole? The evil of poverty, wrote Orwell, is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually. Work, he insisted, is the only thing to turn a “half-alive vagrant” into a self-respecting human being.
It is with these recollections of the magnificent and wicked Paris that I seek in all who read this. We must raise awareness of this situation of poverty with intellectual honesty before being dazzled by the lights or accepting it as the norm; we must seek solutions to help people come out of it, rather than help the poor with food or rely on organisations; and lastly, we must unravel the debate regarding the cause, rather than being completely distracted by the symptoms of the problem.
From my experiences, I feel it is these three factors that can burn through Paris’s darkness and emit some light into the deeper, darker chasms where it is needed most.
Photo Credits: Rofiqul Islam
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