Paris: Voice of the Suburbs

Intrepid reporter Widad takes us into the heart of France’s deprived suburbs to reveal a voice not often heard.

Widad Ketfi is a bold journalist for Bondy Blog, a news outlet set up to give young journalists in Paris’ deprived suburbs an opportunity to shape their own narrative and combat negative stereotypes depicted in the mainstream media.

Widad believes education is key to empowering Paris' youth. [Al Jazeera]
Widad believes education is key to empowering Paris’ youth. [Al Jazeera]

One of the issues Widad feels most strongly about is the social inequalities that begin at school – her next assignment for the blog.

For Widad’s investigation, she travels around the suburbs of Paris, where she meets locals, teachers and students, while trying to track down the national education minister for an all-important interview.

In an area where one in five people are out of work – double the national average – Widad sees education as key to empowering so many dispossessed youth, as it did in her own experience.

The blog was started after the 2005 Paris riots, the worst in France for decades.

Against the backdrop of the 10-year anniversary, Widad tries to investigates the deep social issues that exist in France’s suburbs today but faces challenges beyond her control.


By Horia El Hadad

In October 2005, riots broke out in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois after two boys of African and Arab descent were killed while trying to escape from the police.

The deaths of Bouna Traoré, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, triggered two days of riots in the impoverished banlieues (suburbs), with the French government forced to declare a state of emergency.

With nearly 3,000 people arrested and more than 120 police officers injured, the violence resulted in the birth of Bondy Blog – a media outlet aimed at giving a voice to the suburbs’ dispossessed youths.

People who don't know the suburbs only see what the mainstream media presents, especially in the news. In the minds of people today, the suburbs are full of 'terrorists'.

by Widad Ketfi, Journalist, Bondy Blog

I first heard about Bondy Blog in May 2015. The Blog’s aim is to dispel negative perceptions of the suburbs and its residents by training citizen journalists to report on issues that affect them, using their local knowledge and connections. In an area where the unemployment rate is over twice the national average and more than half the residents are of Arab and sub-Saharan African origin, many of the bloggers reflect the area’s working class and immigrant backgrounds.

This is something that makes the Blog quite extraordinary, Nordine Nabili, the Editor-in-Chief, explains. “Bondy Blog is unique because it was born out of tragedy. Nobody expected to see people from these areas doing this work,” he says. “The fact that these young people are able to write and present TV shows, is almost a provocation for the French elite. The Bondy Blog is the revenge of these working class kids.”

With 220,000 visitors a month, the blog has won awards for its work and, over the years, become a respected media outlet and the go-to resource for anything relating to Paris’s notorious banlieues.

Initially, the idea for this film was to document the Blog’s work during the 10th year anniversary of the riots, through the eyes of one journalist, as they investigated a story relating to the area. We wanted to see whether anything had changed in the suburbs a decade after the unrest and, more importantly, to see whether the Bondy Blog had achieved what it set out to do; change people’s perceptions of Paris’s suburbs through the work of its local journalists.

But then, mid-shoot, the Paris attacks of November 2015 happened. In a series of coordinated assaults across the city, 130 people were killed. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying it was in retaliation for French strikes on ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq. But the link between the suburbs and the attackers was quickly made in the media, and once again, the spotlight was firmly on the banlieues.

According to 30-year-old Widad Ketfi, a journalist at the Blog and our main protagonist, French society sees the suburbs as a no-go zone. “People who don’t know the suburbs only see what the mainstream media presents, especially in the news. In the minds of people today, the suburbs are full of ‘terrorists’.”

We followed Widad as she investigated a story into social diversity in schools, while trying to track down Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the National Education Minister, for an important interview.

Through her journey, we got an insight into these so-called “no go” areas. What we saw was a community that was suspicious and tired of the media.

Nawufal Mohamed, a youth worker in Clichy-sous-Bois, told us stories of television crews being chased out or robbed of their equipment by local gangs. He explained that locals were simply fed up by the endless stream of journalists coming to report on the state of the suburbs, only for no real change to materialise for local residents. “Since the riots, some homes have been renovated and some big high rises have been knocked down. But just because you move people from one building to another, it doesn’t mean the problems disappear.”

We did not know it at the time but the focus of the film would shift from being an empowering story about a deprived community finding its voice, to an unsettling story about the institutional and psychological challenges they continue to face amid increasing suspicion from wider French society.

“The attacks of November 13 were a shock for all of us, especially the Bondy bloggers. But we knew that when the gunmen fired those bullets we would also be hit,” Nabili explains. “If we don’t have a political class that takes measure of what happened, attacks like this will only continue.”