Sharply divided worlds meet at Paris's Gare du Nord

The train station that symbolizes ethnic France was the scene of a riot last month.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Gare du Nord rail station, where a racially tinged rampage erupted for eight hours in the middle of the French election season, is a symbol of cosmopolitan Europe in the heart of Paris. The high-speed Thalys and Eurostar trains connect to Brussels and London here. So do lines to Charles De Gaulle and Orly airports.

The station also symbolizes ethnic France: lines run straight to majority Arab-African suburbs, like that known as No. 93. Gare du Nord is a hangout for those groups, whose role has risen as elections veer to the question of "national identity," considered code for ethnic groups that can't or won't become "French." The issue has been little spoken of in the presidential vote, whose first round is April 22, but it has started to open a political and intellectual chasm in the French mind.

That silence changed March 28, when a Congolese illegal jumped a station turnstile at 4 p.m. Tall plastic shields had been affixed recently to the turnstiles, making the act highly visible, witnesses say. The man refused to pay a fine, was handled roughly, started screaming, and attracted a crowd of mostly black French, who first shouted epithets. Many were directed at conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, the former Interior minister who had just proposed a "Ministry of Immigration and National Identity." The fracas turned into a mob looting that lasted till 1 a.m. One commentator called it an outburst by "globalization's immigrants in France," though it lacked the intensity of nationwide suburban riots in late 2005.

Recommended: France presidential elections: the candidates challenging Sarkozy

Blacks and Arabs from No. 93 are now back at Gare du Nord. They want things to return to normal. "We like meeting friends and having coffee here … we like coming to Paris," says Guy, from the Ivory Coast. "It's nicer than the banlieues," as the suburbs are known.

Indeed, the station has been refurbished: The roof is open to the sky; multilayered platforms with palm trees, and wood floors; and shafts of sunlight illuminate shops sporting flowers, pastries, handbags, tennis shoes, and cellphones. It's a swirl of the fashionable and the undocumented, dreadlocked Africans and tourists wheeling suitcases, hip-hop kids and corporate suits, police in combat boots and discreet drug dealers – a bustle of dashing, people watching, and shopping.

Cool hangout, crime zone

Many young blacks who promenade the Gare du Nord dress stylishly. In an afternoon of interviews, those who will talk say the station is a cool place to bask in an ambiance that matches their aspirations. Police sources say the station is both a hangout and a crime zone for gangs.

Mohammed – "Call me Momo" – is a neatly groomed young Muslim of North African extraction who hangs out with Yannick, from the Congo, who wears a designer track suit. Momo says the police wouldn't have "done that to a white guy." Lionel, who sports high-end tennis shoes, cornrows, jewelry, and a smile bigger than Montana, is from the Congo as well. He is here to meet his girlfriend.

They felt swept into the March 28 rampage, but deny they are living in a state of rage. "We weren't really angry, or at least we didn't start angry, we just felt solidarity," says Lionel. Yannick, who says he came here 11 years ago with his parents, does odd jobs but says what he really wants "is to work in an office … but that's never going to happen." He wants to be like the businessmen whisking past him.

They all hold cellphones – which police say were used to quickly summon the mob of some 300, in the March 28 incident.

Guy, in jeans and a blue-velvet jacket, is a Baptist who wants to do community work in the banlieue. He says he was "expecting something like [the riot] because the station is where everyone comes."

Pointing finger at immigrant kids

He's a mix of patience and exasperation, saying that relations between the police and populations in the banlieue have deteriorated. Most rioters were children of French immigrants, not immigrants, he says, "which is sad given the bad name [immigrants] get in the elections."

"In the colonies, we are all raised to be French, we feel French, but when we come to France, we aren't treated as French…. The kids who broke things were born here. They are French kids who are jobless. People like me, we aren't thinking like that. We just want to work. We don't get in trouble because we know we'll be deported."

Every black interviewed supported Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. "She's like the other politicians, but she's less racist," says Joseph, from Ghana, who is on his way to London, where he works as a security guard. He can't find a job in France, he says, with a roll of the eyes.

Mr. Sarkozy, who started a deportations policy, couldn't visit a Lyon suburb last week because of protests.

For France, the question of how to impart French identity in populations that live largely separate lives is a profound one. Those who see the problem as urgent, conservatives like Sarkozy and Jean Le Pen, advocate tough approaches that have angered minorities. Socialist and liberal candidates are seen as defining the issue less urgently and as short on ways to address it.

Sarkozy says that unassimilated youths tend not to care about France, don't learn the language, and freeload off its social system; he advocates a serious change in the social contract.

"For years, we have let them [minorities] do whatever they want," he said after Gare du Nord. "We are the only country in the world where people think it's not right to arrest someone who has not paid for his ticket. If the police are not there to ensure a minimum of order, what exactly is their role?"

Conservatives point to lax immigration policies that don't lay out acceptable behavior. Sarkozy, in a new book, spells out a new concept of personal responsibility, one he says will protect not only mainstream French, but also ordinary immigrants. Some observers say a focus on individual behavior is more realistic, innovative, and far-reaching than anything proposed by Sarkozy's competitors.

For Ms. Royal and for François Bayrou, the "third man" in the race, who is also liked in the banlieue, the Gare du Nord riot is the bitter fruit of a policy that has put police and ethnic populations at loggerheads. They say that without establishing trust among immigrants, and a real stake for them, divisions will worsen. "We've got to this situation because for a long time the police have been used exclusively as a force for repression – ever since the arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy at the Interior ministry," said Mr. Bayrou.

Royal said: "After five years of a right-wing government, which made law and order its campaign theme, we can see the failure. People are pitted against each other; they are afraid of each other."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...