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Project: Banlieues Ablaze

The Immigrant's district

by John Conrace and Joe Mulia

Three faces of French immigration.
Three faces of French immigration.

The face of Europe is changing, it’s estimated that in 100 years the indigenous Europeans will be outnumbered by Arabs and Africans. Birth rates among Europeans have dropped dramatically over the last 50 years. In the last 20 years the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and nearly every other European power have increased the number of immigrants they are allowing into their country to compensate for the low fertility rates.

When France faced low birth rates in 1900, immigrants were invited here, also. Today France is a completely different nation and one of the only great powers in Europe which has ceased importing its population. France is now a nation of immigrants and French culture is slowly changing to reflect that.

If anything was revealed by our time in Paris, it was that France is becoming every bit as multi-cultural as the United States. French culture may be about wine and cheese, but for every bread shop or winery there were two Chinese restaurants and a Scwarma. In the south of the Paris (in between the Avenue d’ivry and Avenue de Choisy) is the Chinese quarter, a district of Paris dominated by a generalized and amalgamated Asian atmosphere. Even the McDonalds is given an Asian-style façade.

The Chinese Quarter is certainly not the only sign of foreign influence in Paris. Immigrant districts like “China Town” or “Little Italy” are nothing unusual in big cities; the Chinese quarter is interesting but nothing unique. The northern quarters of the Paris, however, are a different story. The 18th district looks like Paris, with Parisian-style housing blocks, streets, canopied streets, and corner cafés — but are almost exclusively populated by immigrants of the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. Often we were the only two Caucasians on the street.

These were not the banlieues, they didn’t reek of poverty, and they were not as impoverished as we expected. We took several excursions into the northern districts, where we could absorb and explore the cultural exchange without fear of danger.

A young boy selling shoes at the flea market.

A young boy selling shoes at the flea market.
Note the Tunisian flag that flies over his stand.

We began by riding the subway to the end of the line. We got out onto a broken street undergoing repairs. Waves of people (mostly Arab and African) left with us from the subway, all of them heading north to the buses that go into the suburbs. We followed them until we got thirsty, and stopped in a bar for a drink and to discuss what to do. We couldn’t go into the suburbs because the school had forbidden it. We decided to talk to the men at the bar and see if they had any thoughts for a few American students traveling the backstreets of Paris.

We talked to the Arab patron about the World Cup and why he had lemonade on tap with Amstell and 1768. The drunken bar patrons talked to us about “Shifty Arabs”. One man was an immigrant from Poland and a self-described racist who told us how he hated the Arabs and about how “they” were invading France. We asked him “What about the owner of this bar? He is an Arab and you come to his bar.” “He is different; he’s OK,” the man said.

I don’t know how different from other Arabs the bar owner was. We weren’t in the banlieues, we were on the outskirts and there were still a great many Arab business owners. The businesses reflected their owners’ heritiage. Barbers and beauty shops advertised African hair styles, general stores sold prayer rugs, head scarves and hookah pipes. There is an obvious Arab/African influence all over Paris, but it is the most pronounced on the outskirts. Perhaps the most interesting example is called the Flea Market.

The Flea Market begins in the 18th district and continues for as far as the eye can see north into Seine-Saint-Denis. If there is a The flea market is like the Bazaar of Paris, men behind tables heaped with merchandise call out to you, making certain you know they have only the best deals and merchandise. The thin aisles between the merchants are filled with people bargaining and browsing.

All this was on the streets, hundreds of merchants setting up shops on the curb. Their shops were fascinating; we watched workers build tables, canopies, and display racks out of collapsible aluminum rods which came from their large vans. For miles on end, the streets were lined with such booths, selling everything from fresh fruit and fried chicken to African masks and ornate pipes to pirated CDs and knock-off designer purses. If we hadn’t known better, we would have thought we were in Africa. It was common to see the Tunisian flag hanging beside the French flag, or hear Arabic music with French lyrics.

It was at the flea market that we met a real French painter, sitting under an umbrella, paintbrush in hand. Most think of street artists as a French phenomenon, but we met one in the Arabian flea market. He wasn’t painting the Eiffel tower or the streets of Paris. He was painting his memories of the Congo, a festival of women and children dancing in a field. He described the painting to us in French and showed us his other work; he painted totems and African figures on the hides of animals and leaves. He sold his work at the flea market alongside a booth hawking Nike sneakers and prayer rugs. The Artist showed us that he was featured in a book of French artists. We shook his hand, took his picture, and let him get back to painting. We didn’t ask him about the riots or what was wrong with France; he seemed secure in his French hood — after all, he had been featured in a book about French artists.

From French artists who paint memories of the Congo to shops selling Arabic and African art the cultural influence of immigration in Paris is astonishing. But why is it only on the outskirts of Paris that these people can awaken their cultural identity, and why are so many French reluctant to accept the exchange of cultures? We found an organization specifically dedicated to helping the French along with accepting this cultural exchange, it was called Coup De Soleil.

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