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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "La cité, c’est ma deuxième famille"

by Society

The "Cité" Is my Second Family

Translated Thursday 23 November 2006, by B. G.

Sonia, a 17 year old high school student, describes Le Vert Galant, in the run-down housing project - or Cité - Tremblay-en- France, Seine-Saint.-Denis.

Sonia no longer lives in that part of town, but she still spends her life there. Living in a development “Like Melrose Place minus the swimming pool”, in Tremblay-en-France, she spends her after school hours at Le Vert Galant, a working-class neighbourhood shared between Tremblay and Villepinte. “I only come home to eat and sleep,” she laughs. Family quarrels? Masochism? Neither: Sonia loves her parents. But equally she appreciates the “warmth” she encounters beneath the apartment blocks, despite the various clan rivalries. That’s where all her mates meet up, girls and boys. “We grew up together in Junior High School, but were separated by High School,” explains Sonia, who is sitting her final year of the High School graduation exam (BEP) in Health and Social Sciences at Blanc-Mesnil. “We tell each other about our day, about things we remember, we talk about our little everyday problems and give each other advice.”

The teenager is not prejudiced and will happily talk with “guys of twenty-six or girls of thirteen.” Formerly a brunette, “always in a tracksuit”, Sonia is currently blonde and “trendy”. Above all, she feels happy with herself and her own ways, whatever happens. “Guys think of me as their little sister. That makes some of the girls jealous. In my class there are three boys out of 32 students and I always hang out with them.” For Sonia, male-female relations have simple rules. “As long as you don’t tease guys, nothing will happen to you.” She explains further: “ A girl is not an object or a doll. She has a figure, she shows it off and that’s normal. You can approach her without raping her in a cellar.” Put another way: “Girls who live their life the way they like win more respect than those who let themselves be judged.”

Sonia has been going out with Abdel, one year older than her, for a year. That doesn’t stop her from getting into a car to chat with two other male friends. “ I haven’t done anything wrong, but round here rumours spread faster than in the newspapers,” the soccer and boxing fan defends herself. An open spirit, dialogue, respect; Sonia behaves on the street like her parents do at home. “We talk about everything. There are no taboo subjects. My two brothers are totally open-minded. I went out with one of their friends for two and a half years,” she states. The same tolerance applies to religion. Although Sonia has chosen Islam, she could easily have opted for Judaism, the original denomination of her mother and grandmother. “You shouldn’t deny your roots. One day I would like to visit Israel to find out a bit more about it,” she admits, regretful that certain people sometimes speak badly of Jews without knowing exactly what their life is like. “You can learn a lot from other people. Without them you would never get past looking in your mirror, you’d never change your opinions.”

One year after the violent events which rocked the estates, her view of events is inclusive but not overindulgent. “We really did have a rebellion. I say we because I was involved. Those events didn’t shock me, but smashing cars and windows, that’s unreasonable. The victims of that are not the ones responsible, and if that had happened to my parents, I wouldn’t have been happy. My mates told me ‘We know it’s wrong but that’s the only way to get heard.’ Well, rappers have their songs to get through their anger.” As she knew Zyed Benna, one of the two young men killed by an electric transformer at Clichy-sous-Bois, she would have liked at the time to “have a demo outside the Elysée, and where Sarkozy is. The way they died was unacceptable. Bouna was a very good student, and Zyed never got into trouble. He only went out to go to school or play football. They would be happy to see they are remembered, but not by having riots every year. That’s not going to bring them back,” the girl maintains.

In her view, the cause of this revolt has a name: discrimination. “I have two girlfriends who applied to do a training course at the same place. The first girl, whose family are from Mali, was told the place was already taken. The second girl was accepted ten minutes later. Blacks and Arabs are categorised. They’ll take us on at Macdonalds all right, but for a more important job – employers prefer someone from Central Paris (75). Your first name counts for a lot. Sonia is OK, you could be from anywhere.” When she was returning from her holidays in Morocco, at a stop in Marseille, she heard someone say “You’re from District 93? Where the young deliquents torched everything?” Such preconceptions make her even more proud to come from Seine-St.-Denis. She never wants to leave, even resisting her mother’s suggestion that they move to the South of France.

“The Project is my second family.” And just for pleasure, she went for a visit. The first impression is that Vert Galant is a district full of life. Lots of different businesses, crèches, schools, retirement homes; disabled people’s centre, Post Office, Community Centre, local mission, pharmacies, multimedia library, Town Hall…all this in amongst apartment blocks of various colours and sizes. “They can’t say there’s nothing here,” she says, waving to a cousin she spots, on a bus covered with photos of local young people. A bit further on is the Greek Takeaway where some young people are meeting up for a kebab. And suddenly, she has a thought: “I never realised how much I love Tremblay.”

Ludovic Tomas

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