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Young voters in France's forgotten suburbs

By Christina Okello

Young people in France's poor suburbs, the "banlieues," voted massively for President François Hollande in 2012, who was elected on a campaign pledge to curb unemployment. Five years on, enthusiasm has given way to disappointment. But instead of losing heart, some teens are penning down tracks of the vision of French society they want to live in.

The journey from Paris to Bondy is a mere half an hour, but the sense of isolation felt by residents is social as much as political.

It affects their attitudes to the current presidential campaign, for which many express a faint interest.

On my way to a rally by supporters of Benoît Hamon, aimed precisely at curbing this feeling of abandonment, I stumble across a group of youngsters on the streets. None of them seem particularly keen on going to the Socialist candidate's debate less than ten minutes away.

"Why doesn’t he just come here?" asks 20-year-old Timothy.

"If we go to that meeting, I’m sure there will be no youngsters like us there. In my opinion, the people who are there don’t come from Bondy.”

More than half the residents in the town are of foreign origin, mainly Algerian, Moroccan and sub-Saharan African.

Poverty rates are high, as in many of France's deprived banlieue, and unemployment stands at twice the national average at 24 percent.

Timothy's friend Mohamed joins in the conversation.

"Everyone here is trying to build their lives as best as they can. It’s hard enough without getting bogged down in these affairs," he says at the dimly-lit intersection opposite Bondy railway station.

One affair in particular focusses his attention: the ongoing scandal engulfing conservative candidate François Fillon.

Double standards

"They’re just like us with their wheeling and dealing and fake jobs (...) But if we have a criminal record, we’re not even allowed to get a job at the airport. Yet they can be put under investigation and still run for president!”

This feeling of double standards and injustice has long provided the inspiration for popular rap artists like IAM, whose hit song “Born Under the Same Star” already suggested back in the 90s that our destiny depends on where we’re born. In deprived areas like Bondy, that sometimes leads to a life of crime and ultimately prison.

"We’ve tried everything," Bondy's Socialist mayor Sylvine Thomassin tells me when I eventually arrive at the Hamon rally.

"The right has tried everything, the left has tried everything to create jobs in this country (...) and we still can’t reduce unemployment.”

She nonetheless believes that Hamon's proposal of a universal basic income targeting young people aged 18-25 could help them to get established and plan for the future.

No to 'uberisation' of Emmanuel Macron

But Thomassin is vehemently against the liberal policies of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.

“Young kids in this town might earn some money in becoming Uber drivers, but they won’t have access to social housing because they won’t have pay slips, and they won’t be able to take out a loan because they will be self-employed. They will work like slaves, to barely make a living. Is this the kind of society we want to offer our kids? That’s not the society I want, it’s a pipe dream.” 

France's former economy minister, who last year launched his movement En Marche, or Onward, wants bolder deregulation in order to encourage firms to create jobs.

Recent opinion polls show him taking almost a quarter of the vote among voters aged 18 to 24, while his main rival, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, was predicted to get 24 percent of the French youth vote for her plans to introduce tax breaks for businesses employing young people.

Which Left?

For first time voters like Issiah Gost, the choice is split between the Left. "But which Left? That's the challenge!" she says.

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has seen his popularity soar in recent weeks and is now viewed by many as the de facto Left candidate ahead of Hamon.

The leader of La France Insoumise [Defiant France - Mélenchon's political movement] also appeals to a community tired of being stigmatised, and keen to shake off its image of lawlessness.

"I want young people to no longer be viewed negatively," continues Gost.

"I’m not talking about me per se, but about the drug dealers we talked about tonight. They could have been my school friends. It breaks my heart. But that’s the way it is. Each person chooses his own path, but they didn’t have any help. They need more accompaniment to prevent such behaviour, instead of letting them go wild and then punishing them afterwards.”

Soul music

Accompaniment but also autonomy. That's the philosophy of the La Haye aux Moines youth cultural centre in Créteil further south.

Inside, several teens are rapping to a tune from their latest album called "Angelica".

"It's French freestyle rap," explains Marvin, a 24-year-old job-seeker.

"It helps me to express myself. I can speak about politics, I can speak about my life. There is a separation between our music and life conditions, and the life conditions of the elite. They can't hear us."

A point of view shared by 15-year-old Anne-Marie, who feels today’s politicians have little insight into the reality of life in the suburbs, except perhaps Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

"He cares about young people, not about ambition," she says. "Mélenchon was the only one who spoke out about the case of Theo."

After riots

The alleged rape of a young man named Theo by a police officer during a violent arrest in a housing estate in Paris suburb Aulnay-Sous-Bois in February, once again enflamed tensions between young people and the police.

Those tensions were at the highest in 2005, after the death of two teenagers provoked three weeks of rioting.

Like in Bondy, the issue of youth unemployment remains a priority for people in Créteil. But Marvin says he's not expecting much from the candidates.

"I don’t think any of the candidates can help me find a job, because it’s my affair, and it’s a question of me and myself.”

This attitude doesn't come as a surprise for the youth centre's director Jean Philippe Bien.

“At the MJC [Maison de la Jeunesse et de la Culture, or youth cultural center], we try to help young people become adults and from there French citizens. To find their way of life, the meaning, why they are here."

There are a dozen of these structures in Créteil, and Bien reckons they help foster the town's culture of living together, "le vivre ensemble".

"It’s a place where people from different horizons come together, like a microcosm of French society."

Youth an electoral prize

And the elections in all this?

"Young people don't know the parties' programmes. The politicians only come knocking at their door when it's election time," regrets Bien.

"The affairs of Fillon are seen like a reality TV show, but that's it."

"Mélenchon is the only politician who has the least problems with the justice system,” says for his part Whally, a 31-year-old teacher who helps out at the centre.

Snuggled between a playground and a park leading to Créteil-Université metro station, kids from the age of seven and adults as old as 77 converge daily at La Haye aux Moines.

Ryls and Dougs, two freestyle rappers, come to perform in the studio and find entertainment. 

“I want to do beautiful concerts, showcases and music videos, and have a big producer with my collaborator Dougs," says Ryls, 19.

Dougs, a burly but gentle figure aged 17, echoes Ryls' ambition.

The pair, along with Marvin and another performer have just released their new track "Angelica". A song about life on the estate, love and marriage far away from the enflamed lyrics about oppression of French rap.

Young people like them in the suburbs are expressing themselves and affirming their autonomy in different ways, beyond politics.

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