In October 2015, Paris passed the ten year mark since riots broke out in some of the ‘banlieue,’ the nearby suburbs. These events received massive media coverage, full of images of burning cars, and quickly became a point of contention in French society and politics, inspiring the film La Haine featuring Vincent Cassel.
Today the banlieue are back in the news - often described as breeding grounds for Islamic radicalism, recruiting grounds for ISIS, and recently the scene of a spectacular 5,000-round, seven-hour shoot-out between the French RAID forces and reported perpetrators of and accomplices to the deadly attacks by ISIS-affiliated French jihadists that took 130 lives on November 13th of this year.
A TTM contributor, French photographer Steven Wassenaar has been covering current events and social affairs in France for years - from the migrant crisis in Calais, to life in the offices of Charlie Hebdo before January’s deadly attack, to the deadly events of November 13. He has also covered life in some of the French capital’s most disadvantaged ‘banlieue’ extensively, spending a lot of time with residents, and offers a look back in a recent collection of photos shot between 2013 and 2015. His view of these neighborhoods is a different one than that offered by national and international media - one that he shares with many who live or work in these areas.
“The suburbs of Paris are really interesting - the ‘real’ Paris - where there is a young population that is extremely diverse, ethnically mixed, with many religions,” he said. “You can get a feel of Modern France more there than in inner Paris. But there are huge problems - poverty criminality, drugs, and some Islamic extremism. However, I don’t only focus on the problems, but also the more normal side of living there, the positive developments.”
“These are areas that are basically abandoned [by public discourse],” he said. “There is a huge difference between the reality and the strong language used in French politics - a lot of talk about war. The discourse is almost martial, but on the ground there is some laissez-allez that is crazy. Criminality is open, you can repair your car on the street. There is a total absence of regulation. The presence of state is merely anecdotal.”
Though the banlieue have come under increased scrutiny since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, with authorities citing a risk of radicalization and a tendency to extremism among some young men in the neighborhoods, after the recent attacks Wassenaar describes a different scene.
“After the January attacks, people didn’t justify it but didn’t condemn it,” Wassenaar said. “They felt attacked by the cartoons. Now it’s different. Now everybody is against the attacks. There is much more a sense of national unity."
Spending time photographing and talking to residents, he describes a disconnect between the government’s reaction to recent events in their discourse about the banlieues and their youth, and the social issues that frame out everyday reality for young people. And importantly, his work shows how not all the stories to be told of these neighborhoods are ugly ones.
“There is some talk about these young French guys who go to Syria to fight and get radicalized, and there’s no link with social issues,” Wassenaar said. “But there should be. The government’s story to go to war in Syria is too simple. There should be talk about why so many young people feel attracted to this extreme ideology.”
“What I feel is that these young young people are trapped between their ambitions and the feeling that their society doesn’t want them. They may not have access to people to tell them how to move forward. But there are great stories. I did a story about hip hop dancers who are really positive and do great things and dance all day.”
“It’s just a consequence of being there. I run into a hip hop guy and a great story comes out of it.”