Strasbourg: The Schizophrenic City

Article published on May 8, 2014
Article published on May 8, 2014

The centre of Strasbourg is pretty and calm. The city hosts the European Parliament and exudes prosperity. But this facade conceals a darker side. Youth unemployment is sky high, drug problems have exploded, hundreds rely on a soup kitchen and many are forced to move away in search of a better life...

As the sun sets into the river Ill, the gothic tim­ber-framed build­ings that char­ac­ter­ize the UN­ESCO World Her­itage city cen­tre are re­flected in the tran­quil wa­ters. Young peo­ple cycle along the river bank. Many con­tinue to stroll the cob­ble-stoned paths or drink a beer in one of the many wel­com­ing bars around the cen­tre. Stras­bourg ap­pears as lively and en­er­getic at night as it does in the day. It is one of the cities with the youngest pop­u­la­tions in Eu­rope. Yet with youth un­em­ploy­ment reach­ing 23%, it still re­mains a vi­brant and mul­ti­cul­tural Eu­ro­pean cap­i­tal. It is al­most as if the thou­sands of young­sters that flood the city face no prob­lems. But is that re­ally true?

With a pop­u­la­tion of just 272, 000, Stras­bourg hosts one of the two European Parliaments, as well as the Eu­ro­pean Court of Human Rights and the Coun­cil of Eu­rope, with many other EU agen­cies hav­ing their head­quar­ters here too. Sit­u­ated at the cross­roads of Eu­rope, on the bor­der with Ger­many, its res­i­dents can often speak French, Ger­man and Eng­lish in­ter­change­ably, one of the few Eu­ro­pean cities that can boast flu­ent use of the three EU work­ing lan­guages. But do all the in­hab­i­tants feel so Eu­ro­pean?

Thomas Boullu works for SOS Aide aux Habi­tants, an or­ga­ni­za­tion which of­fers legal aid to young peo­ple who face prob­lems with mount­ing debt and/or crim­i­nal­ity. He says that those liv­ing in sub­urbs like Neuhof “don’t even know what the EU is”, let alone what op­por­tu­ni­ties it of­fers. A visit to Neuhof, half an hour south on the fu­tur­is­tic city tram re­veals how dif­fer­ent the sub­urbs are to the city cen­tre. The franco-gothic me­dieval charm Stras­bourg is famed for seems a world away. El­e­gant churches and shiny Eu­ro­pean in­sti­tu­tions give way to run down apart­ment blocks. A sense of un­cer­tainty hangs heavy in the air. The EU pres­tige of Stras­bourg is ev­i­dently not pre­sent be­yond the cen­tre.

Neuhof is one of Stras­bourg’s most trou­bled dis­tricts. With youth un­em­ploy­ment ris­ing, and no state aid for un­der-25s, the young are des­per­ate. Drug traf­fick­ing  be­comes wide­spread in such neigh­bour­hoods. 26 young peo­ple were ar­rested in Oc­to­ber 2012 for being in­volved in a vast drug traf­fick­ing net­work that had taken over the Neuhof sub­urb. “The court’s re­sponse was up to ten years in jail for some of these young­sters” says Boullu, not­ing that most of them were un­der-25s caught in pos­ses­sion of large amounts of drugs (heroin, cannabis, co­caine, etc). Some young­sters were sell­ing heroin from their scoot­ers. The court is “ag­gres­sive” in such cases, con­tin­ues Boullu, his voice con­vey­ing a sense of grav­ity.

“Such cases are very dif­fi­cult” says Boullu gloomily. The issue is how to over­come the sense of di­vi­sion and iso­la­tion that sep­a­rates such neigh­bour­hoods from other more pros­per­ous ones close to the cen­tre. “The dif­fi­cul­ties begin at age 15,” he ex­plains, “when young­sters de­cide they can­not or don’t want to con­tinue their stud­ies. They try to find an ap­pren­tice­ship, but if they don’t suc­ceed in that they are doomed”, and their life goes down­hill as they are mounted with debts, in­se­cu­rity and in­sta­bil­ity, lead­ing them into des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions.

Brigitte Lud­mann works for Réseau Ex­press Je­unes, an or­ga­ni­za­tion which helps young peo­ple to find jobs abroad in Ger­many. The Baden-Würt­tem­berg re­gion is only 45 km away and has youth un­em­ploy­ment of just 2.8%. She sighs as she ex­plains that the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by the youth today lead them to seek any kind of op­por­tu­nity, sim­ply to have some­thing to do. “At the be­gin­ning of the cri­sis we had to search for peo­ple, now we have to re­ject ap­pli­ca­tions”. The EU pro­grammes that offer young peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity for a short-term in­tern­ship with com­pa­nies abroad don’t nec­es­sar­ily lead to a per­ma­nent job. “But it is a first step for mo­bil­ity to other coun­tries, cul­tures and lan­guages, and greatly helps in mo­ti­vat­ing peo­ple and build­ing their self-es­teem”, says Lud­mann.

But Lud­mann says it is not so easy for young peo­ple to get up and leave. And it is not just the beauty of Stras­bourg that binds them. “It is the cul­tural bar­ri­ers that make it dif­fi­cult. The dif­fer­ent lan­guage. And the fact that money af­fects the per­cep­tion of what it means to be abroad.” With a sad­ness in her voice she adds that the young­sters in the coun­try­side are the ones who be­come more na­tion­al­is­tic and who be­lieve it would be bet­ter to be out­side the EU al­to­gether.

Just op­po­site one of the most dom­i­nant and ma­jes­tic build­ings in Stras­bourg, the Palais Rohan, there is some­thing you would never ex­pect. Lud­mann tells me to put away my pen and note­book as we enter the soup kitchen hosted by L’Étage – a 30-year old or­ga­ni­za­tion which helps young peo­ple who are un­em­ployed or home­less. 45 work­ers and 30 vol­un­teers pro­vide meals, as well as help­ing with ac­com­mo­da­tion for the 18-25 year-olds who have sud­denly found them­selves lost. Young­sters re­ceive a plate of warm food with a mix­ture of re­lief and de­spair in their eyes. You can’t tell if it is the hunger or the shame that causes them to con­cen­trate so in­tently on the food be­fore them, but all the while they still offer a kind smile to the per­son sit­ting next to them. De­spite the chal­lenges they face they seem to re­main im­pres­sively calm and in good spir­its.

“You are al­ways sur­prised by what you see here,” says Lud­mann as she greets the vol­un­teers. “It is not just the un­skilled that are here, it is also the ed­u­cated ones that reach such con­di­tions with­out know­ing why.” The or­ga­ni­za­tion helped 40 young peo­ple when it first began, but now it sup­ports 600-1000 peo­ple.

As I walk along the river bank gaz­ing at the swans glid­ing across the water and guided by the ever-pre­sent Cathe­dral pro­trud­ing above the re­mark­able build­ings, tak­ing care not to be run over by one of the hun­dreds of bikes that roam the cen­tre, it be­comes so ob­vi­ous why young­sters choose to stay in Stras­bourg. Now if only the MEPs gath­er­ing in their im­pos­ing build­ing just a few miles away could even­tu­ally vote on a di­rec­tive to cre­ate jobs rather than sim­ply forc­ing the youth to leave their homes in search of some­thing  bet­ter else­where.