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A palette where the colors don't mix

Paris' segregated suburbs are a breeding ground for unrest -- and artistry that allows an escape route for some.

November 27, 2005|Geraldine Baum | Special to The Times

Paris — NOT long ago Bibi Naceri wrote a popular movie about Paris in the year 2010. A wall divided the City of Lights from the banlieue, the suburbs with their housing projects teeming with poor Arab and African immigrants.

Naceri freely admits that he and his coauthor, Luc Besson, borrowed from the American action flick, "Escape From New York." But in their story, "Banlieue 13," the disenfranchised masses are not walled into the great city. Rather, they are walled out, into a lawless enclave away from the Parisian elite.

Over the last few weeks of civil unrest in France, life at times has felt as if it was becoming art. The government declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews nightly in areas where cars were torched by the hundreds. There was even talk of shutting down Paris proper in the evening to prevent any treachery.

Naceri never meant for the impenetrable walls in "Banlieue 13" to be pure fiction. The screenwriter who grew up in projects west of Paris believes there has long been a wall around the city -- one of police checkpoints on the roadways and in the subways -- designed to keep out the so-called scum, as one of France's top ministers labeled the rioters. "The walls in my movie aren't there," says Naceri, "but there is so much violence and distrust that traps the innocent along with the criminals, it's as if the walls really exist."

Although a physical wall around Paris was torn down centuries ago, over the last decades, walls of distinctions dividing people by race, ethnicity, religion and neighborhood have become increasingly apparent. Successful French artists, writers and performers of African and Arab descent have been straddling them for years, and some like Naceri have even built their art on them. But first each found a way over the divide.

For Naceri, it was by studying theater in prison. For a mixed-race drummer who has traveled the world with rock stars, it was by learning Debussy and Ravel as a child. For an Egyptian writing duo, it was the patina of Parisian intellectualism.

The personal stories of these artists illustrate that with energy and creativity it is possible for minorities to infiltrate French culture. But this is not a country that often celebrates or supports its multi-ethnicity -- even though it is believed to have the largest percentage among Europe countries of citizens with roots in Arab, African and Muslim countries.

Particularly pop musicians and rappers, visual artists and filmmakers with these roots complain of being shunned by France's Ministry of Culture. The ministry pours its resources into sponsoring the national library and museums and opera houses in Paris that belong to the French elite, according to Frederic Martel, an author and former cultural attache.

"In anything from dance to theater, if you are black or Arab, doing your own thing, nobody will give you money," he says. "We want them only if they accept our classical music or avant-garde theater. They must be French on our terms."

And even that is a bit of a fantasy: At the annual summer theater festival in Avignon, the largest in Europe, there is rarely a black or Arab person on stage or in the audience. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the small southern city is one of the toughest ghettos.

Still, Martel is optimistic that the riots awoke the political elite to rethink everything about integration, including how it affects the cultural mainstream. The goal should not be for these French kids to become white dancers or translate Moliere, he says, but for them "to retain their Arab or African traditions and create a new way of dancing or acting -- to mix it up."

It might help if someone in Paris would at least hear them, these artists from the "other" France say. During the riots, 10 suburban rappers told the newspaper Liberation that they'd been "sounding the alarm in their songs about their neighborhoods for 15 years."

The article referred to lyrics from popular rapper Kool Shen, who 13 years ago warned the "higher powers" to come to the suburbs and take a careful look at what was going on: "Heed my serious call, no, it's not a game at all." Several years later Rim-K du 113 repeated the warning:

There better not be any slip-ups or it'll all blow up

the projects are a time-bomb, gonna be put to the test, from the

police chief to the rookies

all of them we detest.

The pen proved mightier

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