'I have never seen that before: banlieue culture is entering into political debate and it’s no holds barred.' This is how Arlette Chabot, the presenter of television channel France 2’s political programme A vous de juger ('Over To You To Decide'), shows the banlieue to French viewers the day after a tough clash between Modem party leader François Bayrou and French MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit during the programme. Bayrou is president of the centrist party called the Democratic Movement (Modem) and Cohn-Bendit is the European delegate for Europe Ecologie, a French electoral coalition composed of the greens and other ecologists and regionalists.
'The banlieue confirms what most people think about it in France,' says Erwan Ruty, founder of the press agency Ressources Urbaines ('urban resources') and of Presse et Cité ('press and rough suburbs'), the official magazine for the banlieue. You understand the general perception that the banlieue is a lawless zone where drug dealers who are armed to the teeth reside, along with polygamous immigrant families and uneducated children. In summary: they have no hopes for the future.
'Building blocks of flats where all of the problems are concentrated is a reality in France which does not exist in other European countries'
We are at the Comptoir Général cultural centre in a bohemian district of Paris. The guests of the round table discussion on 'banlieue culture in the media: a cliché factory?' organised by Respect Mag are aiming to uncover the social process and the media clichés which lead to, and go beyond, this way of thinking in France. This debate holds a great mystery at face value for the Europeans, because when they talk about the banlieue, they mean France. 'Building blocks of flats where all of the problems are concentrated — from poor, isolated women to youth unemployment and immigration — is a reality in France which does not exist in other European countries,' confirms Jean Hurstel via telephone, founding president of Banlieues d’Europe ('suburbs of Europe'), a network which promotes socio-cultural initiatives born in European banlieues.
We gradually learn from the speeches that two visions of banlieue culture exist side by side, but they do not understand each other. They say that Arlette Cabot’s characture vision is one of the media in general, given that the 'editorial staff are cut off from the world of the banlieue. They are very similar in the media world,' remarks Marc Cheb Sun, editor in chief of Respect Mag.
The way the media handle the banlieue can be summarised by two clichés. 'On the one hand, there is the banlieue dominated by violence and delinquency. On the other hand, there are journalists who want to portray an extremely positive image,' says Mabrouk Rachedi, a French writer who strives to reject the label of 'banlieue writer' statement by statement, which he is lumbered with in France, but which he sheds once he leaves the country. As if, behind the 'problem of the banlieue' a national unease was lying dormant: 'Why do we refer to the banlieue as being foreign? It is due to a collective problem of French identity,' analyses François Durpaire, historian and founder of the pluri-citizen movement ('le mouvement pluricitoyen'). The 39-year-old campaigns for the racial factor to be made part of the variables which are taken into account in the struggle against the discrimination of those who live in the banlieue. 'Race is not established at birth, but with existence,' he nevertheless states. It is the story of cutting all racist interpretations, which can be frequently seen on French television. It is therefore not enough to place a black person or an Arab on the TV news broadcast so that the situation for the 'visible minorities' improves. 'The important person is not he or she who reads the autocue, but he or she who writes it,' says Durpaire, the author of White France, Black Anger ('France blanche, colère noire').
Changing the banlieue autocue
There is therefore national unease behind the problems related to the banlieue, the unease of a France which is only focused on Paris and where the people from Gers, a department in the Midi-Pyrenees region, are not better housed than those from the banlieue, says Durpaire. There are people in Belgium, the Netherlands and Romania who are still wondering about the suburban riots in the French banlieue in 2005. They need to see that behind the word 'banlieue' hides just as many negative connotations, such as 'urban violence', 'precariousness', 'identity crisis', as positive references: 'cultural creation', 'associative solidarity' or 'mixed race'. There are two sides to one space which only asks to promote its complexity and move past the clichés.
Erwan Ruty recognises that media coverage on the banlieue is improving. 'Within thirteen years, we have moved from focusing on districts with lots of crime to more varied themes: gender diversity, islam, gang rape, violence committed against women. The problem is how to deal with these themes.' The banlieue as it is experienced by its inhabitants does not necessary lead to riots and prison. 'It is the melting pot of France’s future,' Jean Hurstel summarises, emphasising in passing the force of the mixture of the cultures which are particular to the banlieue. More and more forms of media created in these districts succeed in breaking past this blockade, from BondyBlog in France to ZaLab TV in Italy and Spain. They are gradually writing a new autocue about the banlieue.
The fact remains that in this battle of fantasy banlieue vs. real banlieue, there is always a risk that the former will be revived. Each political election campaign revives the 'fear of the banlieue', which makes Ruty fear a 'lepenisation' — or the adoption of far-right views — on the part of certain media groups. The Zemmour effect is said to be a knock-on effect of this (Eric Zemmour is aTVcommentator who was convicted for inciting racial hatred in 2010 and who goes on trial this year - ed). Here, once again, the phenomenon goes beyond France’s borders. Across Europe, the announcement of the failure of multiculturalism weakened people’s acceptance of the diversity which is particular to the banlieue. 'It is obvious that we are losing ground and that we are becoming withdrawn. This is the case in Sweden as much as it is in Hungary, Austria or France, where the rise in popularity of xenophobic parties is only equalled by the rise in exclusion. All that remains is to look at France, where they insisted on launching a debate on islam in the middle of the financial crisis. How do you expect people to not see this as an additional exclusion?'