Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

April 27,2015

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, FRANCE— The terrorist attacks in France in January and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on the country's neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Since then, some things have changed, others have not.

Market day in Clichy-sous-Bois - a time to chat and buy items from the home country. Many residents and their forebears immigrated here from North and sub-Saharan Africa. They were looking for better opportunities.

Not everybody found them. In 2005, this Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police. Most people here say pent up anger about the lack of jobs and a future helped fuel the riots that spread across the country.

Clichy-sous-Bois today looks very different. The state has invested massively in infrastructure. Old-timers like 66-year-old Yaya Jaiel, from Algeria, praise the results.

He says lots of things have changed, small apartment buildings with balconies have replaced massive, peeling towers.

Some things, however, have not. According to 18-year-old Mehdi Hassani, who is studying to be an electrician, it’s really hard to find a job, especially for Clichy residents like himself. He says they are still identified by the 2005 riots and still considered delinquents and drug addicts.

Nearly half of Clichy’s population is under 25. More than a third are jobless. A tramway is under construction, but for now, the only easy way out of here is by car.

Pierre Mouget - who heads Mission Locale, an agency that helps young people find jobs - says because of Clichy’s transportation problems, businesses are reluctant to move here, and many young people have a difficult time commuting to jobs elsewhere.

The Paris shootings in January, which involved three Islamist attackers, again focused the spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. That’s where the attackers came from, but activist Mehdi Bigaderne says suburbs like Clichy are no more likely to produce terrorists than any other part of France. He's co-founder of ACLEFEU, a citizens' empowerment group set up after the riots. He says the country is right to be worried about its youth.

Bigaderne says the real question facing French authorities is - how the country got to this point. He says the young people involved in the terrorist attacks did not come from Iraq, Algeria or Morocco but were products of France.

Clichy-sous-Bois still mourns Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, the two boys electrocuted 10 years ago. Two police officers are on trial on charges of failing to prevent their deaths. A verdict is due in May, but the bigger challenge of healing and moving forward here lies ahead.