Filmmaker: Abdullah Elshamy

The high-profile case of the death in police custody of French teenager Adama Traore in 2016 sparked widespread protests across the whole of the greater Paris region.

The young black man was planning to celebrate his 24th birthday that evening but he never made it home. He was dead only a couple of hours after his arrest. A second autopsy confirmed that Adama died from suffocation.

News of Traore's death caused anger and despair in some underprivileged areas of the suburbs. Days of protests followed and some members of the local community clashed with police, setting cars and buildings alight.

Al Jazeera Arabic reporter Abdullah Elshamy went to Paris to ask what it means to be French. How does it feel when you can't get a job, when you are targeted because of your race and seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than your white, middle-class counterparts?

Elshamy visits several suburban communities to identify first-hand the social, cultural and economic problems facing the high-rise estates in "banlieue" towns like Argenteuil and Aulnay-sous-Bois.

They treat us as if we don't have the right to succeed in life. They want to stigmatise the suburbs as negative, dirty places. So we end up with no trust or communication.

Farid

"Poverty here is indescribable," says Oulfa, who balances her charity work with full-time employment. "This association collects cheaply priced goods to sell to the residents of the neighbourhood at lower prices. What you see in this grocery store is what's left in big shops. We collect all thrown, broken and even expired groceries to sell them here."

Like Oulfa, others are trying to bring about positive change to their local communities. A group of young men who've all served prison sentences are now martial arts instructors to local young people.

For boxing coach Toufik, being a positive role model and mentor for the next generation is important. "Before the training, we always have a 10 or 15 minutes conversation with them. We teach them about the life's values and respect of parents and the authorities."

But not far from the government-funded sports centre are those who represent the darker side of life in Argenteuil.

"We didn't choose to be gangsters. We'd like to work in offices with computers. But we can't because they won't accept us," says a drug dealer.

Behind the dealer's alienation lies a whole sub-culture, in which young people like him simply don't have the same educational and social opportunities as the white, middle class. They feel marginalised from mainstream French society.

"We don't feel French," says rapper Salem, who has been arrested several times. "We are the sons of immigrants."

His friend Farid is currently unemployed and has had several job applications rejected, he believes, because of racial profiling.

"They treat us as if we don't have the right to succeed in life. They want to stigmatise the suburbs as negative, dirty places. So we end up with no trust or communication," he says.

The alienation is felt mostly by second and third-generation descendants of the immigrants from the former French colonies in Africa who came to boost the labour force in the 1970s.

In 2009, the France National Centre For Scientific Research published a report called "The Police and Minorities". It found that police identity checks in Paris were based mainly on appearance and that, unsurprisingly, people looking black or Arab were searched far more often than those looking white.

Blacks, it said, were stopped and searched twice as often as whites but Arabs were seven times more likely to be stopped than white people.

"I have never seen anyone saying he is racist or using racist words during an intervention," says Bernard Pasqualini, a former Paris police chief. "I've seen washing machines falling from the roof of a building [on firefighters]. It doesn't matter if he's white, yellow or black. I think the reaction would be the same."

"We're accused of stopping people from overseas origin. The problem is that they're the majority of these neighbourhoods population," adds Pasqualini.

They suffer from delinquency, theft and drug trafficking. That's why you have to impose law enforcement in the suburbs to impose respect for the core values of French society. We have a lot of 'cleaning' ahead of us in the suburbs to impose respect for the law.

Gaetan Dussausaye, president of the Youth National Front (FNJ)

Unrest in the suburbs has enabled right-wing parties like the National Front and its outspoken leader Marine Le Pen, to accuse these areas as being hotbeds of "extremism" at the forefront of what they call the "Islamisation of France".

"The Paris suburbs face big economic and social problems. They face security threats on a daily basis. They suffer from delinquency, theft and drug trafficking," says Gaetan Dussausaye, the president of the Youth National Front (FNJ). "That's why you have to impose law enforcement in the suburbs to impose respect for the core values of French society. We have a lot of 'cleaning' ahead of us in the suburbs to impose respect for the law."

The legacy of colonialism plays a big part in the debate about what it means to be French, according to Alain Gresh, a writer and journalist.

"The war in Algeria played a big part in this racism. The impact of that war on public opinion continues. There must be a big debate."

France has been looking at how to address the social and economic problems of its "quartiers populaires" in the city suburbs since they were developed in the 1970s.

But in May 2018, President Emmanuel Macron appeared to turn down proposals to rejuvenate these areas, reportedly on grounds of cost. This suggests that although the central government recognises their social, economic and cultural problems, it seems unable to commit to solving them.

Source: Al Jazeera