Blacks share parallel conditions in Paris, T.O.


PARIS, France: One of the striking features that makes itself plain minutes away from the Third World atmosphere of Charles de Gaulle Airport on the outskirts of this most elegant city is the concentration of rundown highrises that ring Paris. They stand, by the hundreds, in stark contrast to the remarkable architecture that characterizes this city, the world’s most popular tourist destination. And, like the glaring contrast between the structures – the stubbornly characterless, yet mean-looking buildings on the periphery, and the ornately decorated facades and gold-leafed statuary that represent the colonial wealth accrued over centuries- the relationship between France and its immigrant population has a long way to go to arrive at social and economic equilibrium.

In Paris, that contrast is part of its colonial legacy, so that members of every country it has colonized – and there are many – are present. In fact, the city of Paris has a population of about 2.2 million, while the metropolitan area where many middle and low income residents live – including immigrants drawn from Africa – is about 11 million. Compare that to 5.4 million in Metro Toronto and 2.54 million in Toronto, with its citywide patchwork of subsidized housing where many immigrant families land.

Also, like Toronto, Paris has a tremendously multicultural makeup but its Black population is more representative of colonized African countries, compared to the larger Afro-Caribbean representation in Metro Toronto. As well, with 75 million tourists in the city each year, every kind of English accent can be heard – among other languages – about as often as one hears French on the city streets.

Perhaps that is why those who live in Paris – and it should be noted that means those who can afford to live there – refer to themselves as Parisians. Those who live in those unattractive suburbs are called Banlieusards. (Banlieus translates to ‘the projects’ or ‘the hood’.)

It is clear that the old European class system remains steadfastly in place, especially in Paris itself where wealth contrasts conspicuously with the larger population of much lower paid middle- and lower-level workers. So, as challenging as the reality can be for immigrants in Toronto, the multicultural population still has comparatively better opportunities for social and economic advancement than those who immigrate to France. It’s hard not to notice the pattern of jobs, for the most part, that African immigrants hold – not the middle class occupations. That is, when they do find employment.

At the Eiffel Tower, African immigrants, both legal and illegal, are distinct beneath the iconic structure as they jangle their metal hoops laden with kitschy souvenir trinkets. On occasion, the local police make a sweep at the tower and carry away some of the hawkers to be deported to their home countries. Others quickly replace them.

Aside from selling trinkets, Black people are working as building painters or cleaners in office buildings, for example. Private childcare workers, nannies, are often female African immigrants. But unemployment within this group is high, especially among the youth.

It is within this climate that there have been successive riots on the outskirts of Paris during 2005 and 2007. The riots of 2005, which began in a poor suburb, ignited by a police incident that left two youths dead, lasted three weeks. The three-day 2007 riots involving police and frustrated, unemployed youth were also set off by a similar tragic incident.

In other cities, similarly controlled by a long-standing ‘Eurocracy’, non-White youth endure relentless harassment by members of law enforcement bodies and they also face higher rates of job discrimination. It was these factors that triggered Banlieusard youth to react to police incidents by setting fire to cars in and near those same suburban highrise communities. This was a contributing element when youths took to Yonge Street smashing and vandalizing stores in May 1992 as a wave of anger spread north following the not guilty verdict handed to four Los Angeles police officers over the videotaped beating of African American, Rodney King.  

So, where are immigrants of colour and their children to find hope in the globalized world? Because, in this critical state of race relations, even if children are born locally, in Europe and North America the situation is relatively stacked against them.

On a note of professional kindness…

She didn’t ask him, but the TTC driver, sensing her need, stopped at the now-gone (but once-designated) bus-stop for the convenience of the elderly woman dressed in a pink track suit. Delighted, she laughed her thanks with that old Caribbean lady laugh as she gingerly stepped off the bus. He’d just made her day a little more liveable.

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