The bridge connects one Parisian reality to another. Beginning in the western suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, home to France’s wealthiest community, the concrete structure snakes its way north past drab tower blocks and disused power stations towards the capital’s opposite social extreme. It is here, in the city’s poorest district of Saint-Denis, home of the 81,000 capacity Stade de France, that the bridge comes to an abrupt halt five metres above the ground. The elevated walkway vanishes into thin air, its passengers faced with a perilous drop to the streets below.
The Sentier Métropolitain, as the structure is known, is not referred to as the “bridge to nowhere” without reason. As well as remaining unfinished, the bridge transports its users to a Saint-Denis trapped in economic stagnation. Its poverty rate is 29 percent and its median income €800 less than the national average. The SDF, as the Stade de France is commonly known, is not the only SDF that dominates this region’s landscape. SDF is the French acronym for homelessness, or being Sans Domicile Fixe. Over 45 percent of Saint-Denis’ population either live on the streets or in properties unfit for habitation. Three people die from homelessness each month in the area.
The Sentier Métropolitain’s expected completion date still lies someway off in the future. But it is the past towards which the bridge looks. The structure’s aim, as the then-French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared in 2014, is to “once again create a France of Blacks, Blancs et Beurs.” By weaving together Paris’ predominantly white arrondissements with its ethnically diverse banlieues, the bridge seeks to recapture the racial harmony of the France 1998 squad. The ‘black’ of Lilian Thuram, the ‘blanc’ of Emmanuel Petit, the ‘beur’ of Zinedine Zidane.
The haunting racial legacy of the fracture sociale declared by Jacques Chirac in 1995 seemed to be exorcised on that balmy night at the Stade de France in July 1998. Where in 1995 Algerian terrorists had bombed the Paris metro, now in 1998 a French-Algerian named Zidane headed France to World Cup glory.
The photograph on L’Équipe’s front page the morning after the night before reflected back to a people the image of the tolerant and diverse nation it so yearned for. That picture of the banlieue warrior Zidane sliding in celebration alongside the son of a Polish immigrant, Youri Djorkaeff, seemed to redeem the racial struggles of a nation. Even on the political right, a watershed moment seemed to have been reached. Fierce conservatives, Charles Pasqua and Alain Juppé, announced a ‘Zidane Plan’, where they would regularise the nation’s 70,000 “sans papiers” illegal migrants.
France sees in the class of 2018 the potential for another black, blanc et beur generation. Stride along the Sentier Métropolitain or its associated ground-level walking path, the Voyage Métropolitain, and you soon find yourself immersed in the new footballing dreams of a nation. Painted murals, oversized posters and swirling graffiti depicting France’s current crop of culturally diverse footballing stars salute you along your way.
As the Voyage Métropolitain passes through Bondy, the childhood home of Kylian Mpabbé, the Paris Saint-Germain man winks back at you from an enormous advertising board on the Résidence des Potagers. Move through Roissy-en-Brie and Paul Pogba greets you from a mural painted onto Résidence la Renardire. Turn east towards la Redoute in Foutenay-sous-Bois and you find Juventus’ Blaise Matuidi painted upon the metro station’s walls. The banlieues gave birth to eight of Didier Deschamps’ World Cup squad, and each one pays artistic tribute to its famous son.
Yet even in this capacity as a portal to the bygone days of 1998, the bridge remains one that leads to nowhere. Why? Because the political ethos embodied by the 1998 squad was a fundamentally regressive one. Coach Aimé Jacquet’s team captured the hearts of a nation because it was a symbol of social conservatism, rather than progressive racial politics. As the sociologist Stéphane Beaud has observed, the 1998 team squad featured only three players who were the children of immigrants. Judged in these terms, it was the least diverse French squad since 1904. The majority of its players actually came from small, traditional towns and villages.
Rather, the 1998 team was like a madeleine that transported a nation back to a lost era of simplicity and honesty once known in childhood. Watch Stéphane Meunier’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Les Yeux dans les Bleus of France’s 1998 World Cup team, and immediately the success of Nicolas Philbert’s 2002 film Être et Avoir comes to mind. The latter won the hearts of the French nation with its appealing vision of innocence in which a rural ageing teacher, chalk and blackboard in hand, transforms the fate of children with traditional teaching methods.
Just as in Être et Avoir, in Les Yeux dans les Bleus, Jacquet has the aura of a disciplinarian schoolteacher. Blackboard in hand, he instructs the players in the value of graft, sweat and hard work. At a time of fracture sociale, Jacquet’s rural origins, simple manner and comforting regional colloquialisms – with his famous tendency to blame “les poteaux carrés” – square goalposts – whenever his team did not score – evoked in a nation the memories of childhood when all was simpler.
What was exceptional about the 1998 team was not its racial profile, but the political context in which it took to the field. The national squad has always been racially diverse. In a 1986 survey for L’Équipe, Didier Braun found that of the 600 players who had played for France since 1900, over 200 had an immigrant background.
Where previously the racial diversity of French teams had gone unremarked, the emergence of the Front National in the 1980s altered the cultural lens through which the 1998 team was seen. In 1983, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right-wing party forced its way onto the national agenda, gaining electoral success in one of Paris’ most deprived precincts. It did so on a wave of racist rhetoric that depicted the banlieues as “ghettoes” of crime and disorder.
The war on the ‘riff-raff’ – the racaille in French – tore a nation apart. Jacques Chirac’s rise to the presidency in 1992 was fuelled on anti-migrant rhetoric designed to lure Front National voters. Yet even moderate political commentators were surprised when he equated the banlieue’s 12 million Frenchmen with trash. A chain reaction of violence and police militarisation followed.
Whereas in the 1980s, Paris’ banlieues averaged two riots per year, by 1997 the figure was 15. That year, France’s National Commission on Human Rights found that 34 percent of France’s population held racist views towards migrants. The remaining 66 percent of the nation rallied to show their disgust. In 1996, two million French men and women attended an anti-racism demonstration in Paris, France’s biggest political protest since the 1968 student riots.
The black, blanc et beur offered this portion of French society the momentary fantasy of release from this politics of hate. Like the elevated Sentier Métropolitain walkway that allows Parisians the semblance of immersing themselves in the banlieues without having to descend and confront the street-level realities, the World Cup win offered the illusion of having confronted and overcome a political demon. But in reality it was simply a band-aid over the gaping wound to France’s body politic.
And the band-aid soon gave way. In 1999, a year after Les Bleus’ success, France’s National Commission on Human Rights still found that 34 percent of Frenchmen held racist views. Between 1999 and 2010, the Commission’s annual figures statistics showed that these figures remained remarkably consistent, only dipping below the 30 percent mark by the decade’s end.
On the Norwegian island of Utøya, scene of the 2011 massacre of 69 students by Anders Breivik, a dramatic slice has been cut through part of the peninsula. The abrupt gap in the island’s land mass serves as a symbolic wound, a commemoration to the lives snuffed out by Breivik’s act of terror. As the Sentier Métropolitain comes to an abrupt halt in the Saint-Denis sky, it similarly pays tribute to lives snuffed out.
In 2005, Bouna Traoré, 15, and Ziad Benna, 17, clambered over the two-metre yellow wall of Saint-Denis’ electricity substation. The boys had panicked when seeing other black youths running from the police. Fearing that they might be mistaken for those being pursued, anxious to find somewhere to hide, they had not seen the skulls and crossbones on the substation’s wall. Bouna and Ziad died when 20,000 volts of electricity surged through their bodies. The urban riots that spread across France upon the news of their deaths did not end until over 8,000 vehicles had been burned, 2,900 people arrested, and three people killed.
In place of the unifying myth of Les Blacks, Blancs et Beurs, there now a new, misled political slogan – civilisation against the banlieusards, the new political underclass of young, unruly and violent men of immigrant origin. In 2010, the war against the banlieusards shifted focus from the suburbs of Paris to the football stadiums of South Africa. France’s disastrous World Cup campaign, which saw banlieue icon Nicolas Anelka sent home for insulting coach Raymond Domenech and the squad launch a mutiny, sparked a political scandal that overshadows French football to the current day.
Anelka became a lightning rod for a politic that sees in the banlieues the moral degradation of society. In 1998, when everything went well, French politicians freely invoked the black, blanc, beur as a self-congratulatory measure. That the World Cup victory was possible, they believed, was because they had forged a tolerant, multicultural nation. In defeat, the tables were turned. France’s failure was not a collective one. Blanc faded away, leaving only Black and Beur. The team’s failure stemmed from the “mob culture of the banlieue that infected the team,” the French Minister, Roselyne Bachelot, announced.
Symptomatic of how deeply the politics of the 1990s had become ingrained in the political psyche, Jacques Chirac’s rhetoric of the “riff-raff” soon resurfaced in public discourse. The France Football Federation’s President, Noël Le Graët, announced that only “the well-raised” would be allowed to play for Les Bleus. In 2013, Daniel Riolo’s book The Riff-Raff and French Football became the nation’s best-seller.
As the Stade de France glistens in the background, it is in the streets below a capital’s unfinished bridge that a nation’s most divisive political clashes are playing out. Saint-Denis is at the epicentre of what the London School of Economics’ Giles Kepel has labelled France’s new politics of terror: the terror of Islamic extremism.
It was Rue de Corbillon, just two kilometres from the Stade de France, that played host to the gun battle between police and insurgents following the 2015 Paris Attacks. It was also the scene of police militarisation terror. Saint-Denis was home to ‘Théo’, the 22-year-old black man raped with a truncheon by police last February. Seven months on, it was the turn of 24-year-old Yassine to be violently assaulted by the police, his body later found floating in the river.
On the day that he visited the national training camp for a photo shoot with Les Bleus’ boys from the banlieues, Emmanuel Macron also vetoed a package of reforms intended to revolutionise the quality of life of 10 million Parisians. The Plan Borloo had sought to reform 19 aspects of the state’s interaction with the banlieues, investing over €5bn to improve education standards and prevent a new era of civil unrest. It had been widely acclaimed by academics, economists and social workers. Instead, Macron retreated to the political discourse of the 1990s. It was for the banlieusards to take responsibility for their integration. For them to abstain from violent crime and disorder.
Kylian Mbappé may wink back at you from his billboard in Bondy, and Paul Pogba may greet you as you enter Roissy-en-Brie, but they, no more than the class of 1998, can redeem the racial scars of a nation. In Paris, it is in the heat of the summer months that civil unrest most often simmers over into violence. As Didier Deschamps’ men take to the sky, it is just as possible that it will be the names of Théo and Yassine, rather than Mbappé and Pogba, that will be shouted this summer into the Parisian night.
By Alexander Shea @alexjshea