France: Let us choose life
French “banlieues” (suburbs) have been subjected to a wave of desperate gestures: cars, gyms, community halls, theatres, schools, in other words, all the symbols of a society from which the perpetrators of these acts are excluded, have been set on fire. These angry young men are so desperate that they prefer destroying to building: since they have nothing, they are better off if the others have nothing. They themselves have no prospect of progressing or of improving their situation. They are mostly very young, 15, 17 years old (a 10-year old kid was caught while carrying a Molotov cocktail) and seem not to realize the consequences of their actions. Burning down equipment is not a political act; it does not point to a course of action. They are destroying with their own hands goods that their brothers, sisters, parents, neighbours might need. They do not target those responsible for their exclusion from society, but only their symbols. On the other hand, as a sociologist has said, fire has a ludic value, and for very young people, the attention paid to these fires by the media gives importance to those who normally have none.
This emergency has been in the making twenty years through neglect of a people wedded to unemployment and relegated to suburban ghettoes in which those who are unemployed and those who have social problems gather. But this particular outburst of anger has been provoked directly by political decisions. Three years ago the government cut funds for poverty alleviation. On top of this, a few weeks ago, a remark unworthy of a Secretary of State for home affairs set these suburbs smouldering. He remarked of the most despised, who encounter the most difficulties and are treated as scum, that their neighbourhoods should be cleansed with a Karcher (cleaning equipment that releases water at very high pressure).
Religious communities are present in these neighborhoods; some have existed there for many years. For the members of these communities, the “banlieues” are faces, people who have become “our neighbour”. Together with those who hope, we choose hope; with those who fight we choose to fight; with those who work for a better living together, we choose a civic and fraternal action. While it is necessary to punish those who set public property on fire, we must choose for, and with them-- life, not a despised civic and social death. Furthermore, society has to change profoundly and regain the areas abandoned to poverty and despair. There is an urgent need to build social co-existence, not only in the neighborhoods, but also within parish communities, gathering together Christians who live in these areas. Those who live there invite the others to share with them the experience of living together. Let us choose life.
Lucien Descoffres SJ, Social Apostolate Coordinator for the French Province and member of the insertion community in Cergy Pontoise.