roma, squatters and the parisian banlieues
photographs by nico oved
Whippersnapper Gallery, Toronto
February 15-26, 2007
The North American perception of Europe is largely shaped by the post-WWII balance of power between ethnically homogeneous and culturally distinct nation states. It is a quaint and intellectually convenient view from a culture that rarely probes deeper than a cursory and superficial understanding of the world around it. The 21 days of rioting that began in October of 2005 in the Parisian banlieues – or suburbs - represented for many people on the west side of the Atlantic the shattering of that romantic and long outdated image of Europe. Suddenly, we were confronted with images of the husks of burnt out cars littering the streets and balaclava-clad youths vandalizing and destroying homes, businesses and public facilities. It was immediately clear that the North American view of Europe was outdated and that like Canada and the US, France had to grapple with the race issues of a modern, multicultural state. But unlike the countries of the New World, this new multiculturalism in France must confront the deeply entrenched idea of French “blood”. While Canadian and American immigrant societies easily absorb wave after wave of new arrivals, even second generation immigrants in France are considered outsiders in their own country of birth.
Contrary to the conservative and xenophobic assertions that the problem lies with immigrants' inability or unwillingness to “integrate” into mainstream French society, this is exactly what these people desire: to be included, to get jobs and lead normal lives. The resistance to integration instead comes from employers, police and others who discriminate against those with non-French names or addresses in the banlieues. Such incidents are widely documented in the French media. What results is the Culture of Despair, common to ghettos the world round. Faced with seemingly insurmountable barriers to integration and the opportunity to participate in the culturally rich and prosperous French society, these ethnically and economically marginalized groups are driven to a desperation which manifests itself in either capitulation or rebellion. Pushed to the margins of the city, the underclass occupy dense clumps of publicly built high rises – or cités - with pitifully few businesses, even fewer public services and long commutes into the city. It was precisely this built up frustration which led to the rioting. Unlike the student riots of May 1968, the 2005 riots had no clear political agenda or organization – they didn't attack symbols of state authority or bourgeois wealth, they instead destroyed their own neighbors' property. It was merely the knee-jerk reaction to a pointed example of the daily hardships endured by millions – the deaths of two boys fleeing an arbitrary police ID check and interrogation.
However, the banlieues represent only one facet of the margins of French society. France's staunch Imperial pretensions allow Africans, Asians and South Americans from French colonies to immigrate – but many only on temporary work visas. Restricted to jobs most “blood” French refuse to do, it is a precarious status with few genuine rights. Likewise, membership in the EU opened French borders to all sorts of impoverished southern and eastern Europeans looking for a better life. However, being one of the most expensive countries in the world, these newcomers are finding France prohibitively expensive for the working class. Homeless levels in Paris have spiked and many of these people are living a dystopic nightmare – intending to build a better life, they have instead found themselves in a worse one. Like those in the cités of the banlieues, Roma and the homeless create their own living environments in reaction to discrimination and a perceived lack of opportunity to join mainstream French society.
As a photographer interested in architecture, I subscribe to the belief that environments, especially those we construct for ourselves, deeply affect our daily state of mind. What interests me about the Parisian banlieues and these other marginalized habitats is their physical embodiment of this Culture of Despair. To put it simply: they are depressing. Stark and austere, the high rises of the cités – or ghettos - seem remarkably familiar: direct echoes of worker's housing blocks in the Soviet Eastern Bloc or similar projects built by Mussolini in the suburbs of Rome and other Italian cities. Communist or Fascist built, what these mega construction projects represent is a colossal failure of urban planning. The heavy-handed form-follows-function approach of many modernist architects left us with many examples of a master-planned landscape reflecting a utilitarian ideal – an ideal that has long been discredited. For other examples, think master-planned cities like Brasilia or American inner-city housing projects like those recently razed in the south side of Chicago. These environments could be called living dystopias in the sense that they were constructed with the most noble intentions, but a key philosophical flaw in the didactic nature of modernist design ensured their failure before they were built. Cities are organic in nature. They evolve from the streets up as the physical embodiment of a loose consensus of citizens. The modernists tried to dictate from above who would live where and what would be done there. And now, with the riots of 2005, the successful lobby of “Quixote’s Children” on behalf of the homeless and the mere existence of so many Roma squats, we see a social reaction, an upheaval even, in response to what are essentially design flaws and the political and economic hubris necessary to see them into existence. In my photographs of these places, I hope to reconcile the disparity between the naïve postcard image of Paris and the contemporary complex and textured reality of its margins.
“Take any Norwegian or Swede, inflict the same life conditions on them and i can assure you that they will end up burning cars too..."
- French actor Roshdy Zem in an interview with Première magazine.