The Harlem of France

In the industrial city of Roubaix, a youth jobs program takes hold.

by Christopher Caldwell

The city of Roubaix lies at France's bleak northern tip, along the country's border with Belgium. This is the region made famous by Germinal, Emile Zola's novel of mineworkers in revolt -- but Roubaix was always a mill, not a mining, town. In its current run-down state, with its squat, soot-covered brick row houses, it looks more like a decaying part of Scotland in the 1970s than like information-age France.

Between twenty and thirty thousand Poles were recruited to work in the city's woolen mills between the wars, and they quickly assimilated into the city's middle class. But by the 1960s, these were jobs that they no longer wanted. For one thing, in the unprecedented economic expansion of les trente glorieuses (the thirty prosperous years that followed World War II), the mill jobs paid relatively badly. For another, the government and local planners had slated them for elimination. So between 1962 and 1974, France ran a travailleur immigré program to pick up the slack. This program had the same rationale as the Gastarbeiter program Germany operated for Turkish workers: foreigners, mostly North Africans, would come to run Roubaix's woolen mills (and Lyon's factories, and Clermont-Ferrand's public transportation) for a short time, and return home. And it had similar results: by the early 1980s, all the mill jobs were gone, and all the immigrants -- from forty-seven different countries -- had stayed.

There are still some good jobs in Roubaix, but they're in telecommunications, insurance, and mail-order catalogues. The immigrants of the past generation weren't trained to do them. Nor were most of their children, who are numerous enough to make this one of the youngest city populations in France. And even those who come to the job market armed with strong qualifications bump up against two frustrations: the structural unemployment in the region and the arcane system of connections and "ins" that govern so much hiring in France.

Together the immigrants and their children make up 40 percent of the city's population. Unemployment runs at 26 percent, according to the mayor's office, and the youth unemployment rate is over 50 percent in certain corners of Roubaix, threatening the kind of intergenerational welfare dependence Americans feared in the 1980s. Locally, the right-wing National Front party received 20 percent of the vote in the 1998 European elections. Drugs are a severe problem in the semi-public housing blocks called HLMs, and crack has been added to the street pharmacopoeia in recent months. Graffiti covers most of the older buildings. "There's a little bit of Harlem about this place," says mayoral aide Isabelle Canu. And that's not all bad: Roubaix is the French capital of street basketball, and every year the city sends an all-star team to Harlem to play a series of exhibition games against Frederick Douglass Academy.

But there's another, less healthy way, the place resembles Harlem: in its high minority unemployment. René Vandierendonck, a former conservative who has moved hard to the left since becoming Roubaix's mayor, has sought more aggressively than any of his predecessors to remedy the problem. Vandierendonck has taken the most Clinton/Blair-style program in Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's policy quiver -- the youth jobs program Emploi-Jeunes, which is a sort of European-style AmeriCorps -- and used it as the centerpiece of an ambitious, racially sensitive, and controversial urban renewal. There are fifty-seven different building projects going on, and every park in town is being renovated. There's a new (government subsidized) supermarket in the center of town, and a new (government subsidized) movie theater. These projects, along with a new (government subsidized) fifty-store shopping mall a quarter mile from the city center, make up the city's relookage, to use the strange word the French use for renovation.

Armed only with cell phones, Abdellah Haddouche, twenty-one, and Malik Boudahba, twenty-two, patrol the rue de l'Epeule -- a commercial street until recently beleaguered by vandalism and holdups. They're part of a group of dozens of young men who work as "mediators," "facilitators," and "security adjuncts" -- patrolling sidewalks, reporting suspicious activity, and serving in subways and shopping centers as a kind of cross between tour guides and Guardian Angels. They work five-year stints while training for other jobs, roughly half of them in law enforcement.

Members of the Emploi-Jeunes tend to be of North African origin. "Obviously, if we can hire Maghrebians [North Africans], we hire as many as we can," says Canu. The result is resentment from some of Roubaix's non-Arab residents. "Certain people," Canu says, "obviously racists, say we only hire French people of foreign origin. 'You hire too many North Africans, when there are plenty of French unemployed.' But private enterprises refuse categorically to hire them.... So you get perfectly competent French people of North African origin, with degrees, who after a long course of study get passed over. It's scandalous." Canu estimates the proportion of Roubaix's Emploi-Jeunes hires of North African ancestry at 30 to 40 percent. But to judge from a random sampling of young yellow-jacketed security adjuncts I met in the new McArthur Glen shopping mall, it looks more like 100 percent.

These are plum jobs, and these mediators, facilitators, and security adjuncts are the cream of Roubaix's youth. Many hold other jobs (menial ones, like cleaning shops or manning cash registers), and a majority pass their baccalaureates. Shop-owners in Roubaix are delighted with their presence, which has done a great deal to reduce crime. As regards their situation as young beurs, as the children of Arab immigrants are called in most of France (the word is not used in Roubaix, where they're called arabes), all of the ones I spoke with pointed to problems, but none could be said to have a chip on his shoulder. Omar is the most apt to point to discrimination in hiring, but the most satisfied with the state of French society. He says he speaks only "a little bit" of Arabic, but wants his children to speak it, because it's "good for France." Rashid, asked if the generation of immigrants' children is more drawn to religion than its parents were, smiles and pulls out an Arab prayerbook. As perhaps the most devout of the Muslims in the group, he's the least inclined to attack employers for racism; his own boss (being a security adjunct is a second job) gives him and his fellow Muslim employees regular prayer breaks throughout the workday. Then again, his easy-going attitude could be attributed to the fact that Rashid is the son of harkis, Algerians who fled their country after fighting alongside the French in the colonial war the French lost in 1962. "There is no nationality question for me," he says. "My parents converted to the French flag by fighting for France. They earned their nationality."

In the middle of our conversation, another yellow-jacketed security adjunct walks up. His name is Nasser, he's in his early twenties, and he plays for the French national indoor-soccer team. When he complains about discrimination in discothèques, I think to ask him if he shares the view of David Dufresne, a cultural critic for the national daily newspaper Libération, that rap music today plays as important a role in uniting poorer neighborhoods as sport did thirty years ago. He replies, "Maybe in certain neighborhoods. Not in mine." But would he agree with Dufresne that rap has become a rallying point of sorts? "Yeah. A rallying point for delinquents."

These kids are the beneficiaries of an American-style affirmative-action program. If it fails, it will be by fostering a sense of unequal treatment among Roubaix's native-born whites. It's certainly playing with fire. On the other hand, if it succeeds, it will have won Roubaix's beurs a place in society without their ever having had to pass through an American-style stage of formalized grievance.