2 minute read
James Graff

During 12 nights of violence last autumn in the banlieues of France, rioters trashed cars, schools, shops and much else. Sibaty Siby, 62, says it happened because hope had already been trashed there long ago. President of the Franco-African Association in Clichy-sous-Bois, the poor, high-rise community 20 km east of Paris where the rioting began, Siby figures one thing is as true in France today as it was when he was growing up in a village in Mali: “If you want to be trusted by people, you have to trust them yourself.” France, he says, has failed to create that virtuous circle.

Siby came to France to work in 1968 and never left. He began as a Paris street sweeper, and ended up at a butcher shop. Since it went bankrupt seven years ago, he’s become a kind of elder sage in Clichy-sous-Bois. He says there are many reasons why the young men in the neighborhood are disaffected and angry. Schools are often inadequate, jobs are scarce. But the big problem, Siby says, is housing. “These young guys need studio apartments. Instead they’re in their twenties, still stuck in their parents’ places with their little brothers and sisters,” he says. “Make these guys pay rent; most of them want to be proud, and they’ll find a way.”

The riots gave France a stark look at the cleft between its institutions and the poor, alienated people tucked away in its exurban housing projects. The worst of the dilapidated high-rises in Clichy-sous-Bois are slated for destruction later this year. There and elsewhere in the banlieues, there has been a post-rioting fillip in voter registration, suggesting to Siby that change can come through the ballot box. But like most other people in the banlieues, he’s wary of politicians and their promises. The Intercultural Social Center, where Siby volunteers to help kids with their homework, is still waiting for one-third of the money the government promised for 2005; other associations in the community have similar complaints, despite the state’s vow to increase funding in the wake of the riots. “Nothing’s happened here yet,” says Siby. “Everyone is hoping that’s because they’re still thinking of what to do. But if the quiet means they’ve just forgotten, it’s going to be bad for everyone.”

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