Faïza Guène grew up in Pantin, a banlieue north of Paris. Her first book, Just Like Tomorrow, sold over 200,000 copies in France. She spoke to Jim Wolfreys about being a French-Arab and the recent struggles that shook France.
In 2004, 20 year old Faïza Guène wrote Kiffe Kiffe Demain, the wry, sardonic story of Doria, a teenage girl growing up in the impoverished suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis north east of Paris with her Moroccan mother. The book, perkily translated and due to be published in Britain this month as Just Like Tomorrow, has become a publishing phenomenon in France, with over 200,000 copies sold. From September it will be a set text in French schools.
The novel traces Doria's coming of age - from her father's abandonment of the family to her experiences as a trainee hairdresser and her first kiss - in a punchy wisecracking style seeped in popular culture. A sharp and unforgiving political undercurrent flickers through the story. It surfaces now and again in references to the strike at the hotel where Doria's mother works, or the racist caretaker who can't forget the Algerian war, or in Doria's disdain for her liberal teacher whose concern for his pupils enables him to "feel good about himself, and tell his mates in some trendy Paris bar how challenging it is teaching in the 'at risk' schools in the suburbs".
Critical responses, however, have tended to emphasise the novel's upbeat aspects and to portray it as a sweet urban love story, a kind of Gregory's Girl for the Seine-Saint-Denis suburbs. Reviews heralded Faïza Guène as the "Brontë of the banlieues". Newsweek referred to it as "a lighthearted bonbon of a book". Commenting on its success in the summer of 2005, the Guardian's Jon Henley offered a typically glib take on it all. Remarking on the fact that the "fastest growing names in Paris fashion now do baggies, hoodies and sweats", he concluded, "Until very recently, la banlieue... has been a place to shun. Suddenly, it has become positively chic."
When riots engulfed the whole of urban France a few months later the media sang a very different tune. Few were now inclined to see the hooded youths engaged in the uprising as fashion icons, most commentators falling back on what Henley correctly identified as the prevailing images of the suburbs: "unemployment, immigrants, crumbling tower blocks, gang violence and, above all, fear".
I met up with Faïza Guène last month, shortly before the tumultuous victory by students and workers against the government's CPE youth employment legislation. Her book had started out as a short story written as part of her activities with a local arts association in the Pantin suburb north of Paris. One of the teachers at the association picked up the first 30 pages which she'd left lying around and showed them to a publisher, who signed her up.
"I had no idea of the reaction the book was going to get," she told me. "If I had, I would have written it differently. I didn't read it as something optimistic or positive. I just wrote about daily life. It's not the mainstream media's vision of the suburbs - hoodlums, violence and drugs. People are so used to hearing the same story about the suburbs that as soon as they get something normal they say, 'At last something positive.'
"But I don't want to be the nice little writer with good ideas who shows what they're capable of doing in the suburbs. There are positive things in the suburbs. But there are lots of negative things which need changing. Just because I've written a book doesn't mean that everyone can write one, and that everyone's going to come out of it all OK.
"I don't want to set myself up in opposition to those who are burning things. I don't condemn them at all. I support them. I'm lucky to have this means, this tool, to express myself - this facility with words that they don't necessarily have, so they express themselves in other ways."
I point out that one of the most common reactions I came across from those involved in the uprising last autumn was, "At last we're making ourselves heard."
She reacts quickly: "Who spoke? There wasn't a political message behind it. It was an expression of rage, of having it up to here, a reaction against injustice, against a sense of ghettoisation and marginalisation, against persecution from the authorities, the police, and so on. But you couldn't say that they're listening to us now. They see us. They know we're here. But there wasn't a political message behind it.
"There wasn't an organisation, or someone speaking up in the name of the others and saying, 'This is what we want. Now we need this, this and this.' What I regret is that there wasn't a message behind it, or real demands, or organisation. Who represents us today? Nobody very much.
"Nobody has taught us to address ourselves to this or that organisation. We don't know who to go and see. It's as basic as that. Even the structures in the local areas, the associations, they are people who had big ideals in the 1970s and 1980s who are no longer in touch with things. There's a sense of total disillusionment. And people go to all sorts of lengths to find explanations, but our needs are natural and simple - I need work, I don't have a job, I've had enough, I'm rejected, I'm discriminated against.
"But their reaction to that was the CPE. They took that as a pretext for this absurd measure. Nobody in the suburbs asked for it. They said it was for the youth of the suburbs, and then when the students started demonstrating you'd hear people on the TV and radio saying, 'We can't understand why the students are demonstrating, because it's a measure for the youth in the suburbs.' As if the youth in the suburbs don't go to college!"
We talk about the contrast between the riots of November and the movement against the CPE. For Faïza what characterised the movement was organisation: "It wasn't just young people who were demonstrating or burning cars, it was high school students. They had a social status. They were there as high school students. Once you have a framework, or you know who you're addressing and why, that works. When there's no goal but it's just against the police, that's different. The representatives of the student unions, they spoke: 'These are our demands, this is what we want.' We need people to speak."
Role of women
One of the features of the demonstrations and mass meetings during the movement of March and April was the prominent role played by women. The place of women in society, and in the suburbs in particular, is perhaps the novel's major theme. We talk about how public debate, which has often focused on the activities of an association of women against violence in the suburbs, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), has dealt with the issue. She puts things in historical perspective:
"There was a big setback when it came to the integration of our parents, and our mothers in particular. We carry on our shoulders the weight of 30 years of political setbacks. On the one hand people say, 'Proclaim your French identity, you're born in France, you've got the same rights' - but concretely they're not the same rights because I'm discriminated against. On the other hand, there's my History, with a capital H.
"My father arrived here in 1952. He was 17 or 18 years old. He came to France to work, and sent money to his family who needed it back in Algeria. Nobody chose to come and work in France. They asked them to come and work here. They chose workers for the factories and masons for the construction industry. They got them from the countryside, from the middle of nowhere, because at the time Algeria was part of France. They went to get them in the countryside because they wanted workers, they really went to look for hands.
"And the people who came arrived with the idea that they would go home again. That's a fundamental notion if you want to understand the history of immigration to France from North Africa. Their idea was to go home one day. Then there was the war [of Algerian independence], so things got more complicated. It was complicated because of all the repression from the police. There was the demonstration that's mentioned in the book, on 17 October 1961, where 200 people were killed. Today in France the official version records two deaths. And yet it was the biggest repression of any demonstration since the Paris Commune.
"So those who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s suffered repression and racism, very tough working conditions, no money, and living conditions in the workers' hostels which were very difficult. After a while they said, 'Bring over your wife, or your wife and children.' So they moved into the new estates. Compared to the hostels or shanty towns - because there were shanty towns in the Paris region, in Lyon, around the big cities, where there was no water, no electricity, and so on - it felt like luxury. They didn't see that they were being put into cages.
"Then the wives and children arrived. The men were integrated through work and things outside the home, speaking with other people who all spoke French - their colleagues, or their boss - so they were to a certain extent integrated naturally through work
"The women, on the other hand, had a difficult experience of exile. They didn't leave the house, they just met up with other women like themselves from the same country, so socially there was little mixing. So all the problems that flow from this today in the suburbs - Ni Putes Ni Soumises, the problems between boys and girls, big brothers and little sisters - haven't come from nowhere.
"[Journalist and novelist] Amin Malouf wrote that 'misogyny is passed down from mother to daughter'. Who educated the children? Because the men were in the outside world, it was the women. So it was the women who transmitted this idea of the man as king. At the same time I understand it, because the men had their authority taken away from them in the outside world. They were working, and some men who were illiterate had their children filling out forms for them, managing things, their taxes and so on. So, at one point, to simplify, the big brother had a kind of abuse of power at home - it went too far.
"Add to that the fact that outside the home, and above all outside the local area, he is humiliated, has no job and always has fingers pointing at him - with the image of the 'violent youths of the suburbs', and so on - the only space he has to exert this power that he doesn't have in the outside world is with his sister and his mother. So there's all that which comes into play. The mistakes of the past are making themselves felt today.
"And even if people say, 'Ah, but the women in the suburbs and so on,' my deep conviction today is that however difficult and complicated things are for women in the suburbs, once you go outside these areas, if you're a man, it's very difficult. When they go out of the area it's harder for them than for us. Even if at the outset it was a good initiative because it made their voices heard, today Ni Putes Ni Soumises is used by some, unfortunately, to portray women in the suburbs as victims. In the outside world this reinforces the image of young men in the suburbs as butchers, which isn't going to help.
"The main problem these men have, more so than the women, is that outside the areas where they live they are devalued. That's why inside they try to exert their authority over women. Because outside they're devalued all the time - in school, at work, even when they go out in the evening. All that plays a role, and that shouldn't be forgotten or camouflaged by the fact that someone's written a book."
At the end of the novel Doria imagines leading an uprising on her estate, a non-violent revolution, when "we'll all rise up to make ourselves heard". We talk about the present situation in France, the ongoing crisis opened up by the presidential election of 21 April 2002, when the fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the Socialist Party candidate into third place. How does Faïza herself see things developing?
"There are powerful events at certain moments, like 21 April 2002. We react, and it dies down again. Then we have to wait for another crisis. As if all the demands are a reaction to what's happening from above. After 21 April 2002 you can't go and put someone like Raffarin in power, or give us Sarkozy as interior minister to stir up shit. That was something which should have swept away all the solutions which don't fit. Instead they propose things which are even worse.
"They say they listen, and 'here's what we propose', and then they do things which show they haven't understood anything. The riots in November raised lots of social and, to a certain extent, cultural questions, and after that they raised the budget for the interior ministry, for defence, they sent round circulars on immigration. Instead of offering new horizons, positive and concrete solutions for the people who need them, they use it as a pretext for introducing things like the CPE or Sarkozy's circular on deportations.
"We never trusted politicians, but today it's so flagrant they're not even trying to hide it. Not only are they taking the piss but they're showing us they're doing it, with no inhibitions. Since 2002 there's a very strong feeling that we're not putting up with this - and not just in the suburbs but among young people generally.
"They deal with things as if they're of a cultural and religious order when what we need answering today are social questions. A white guy with blond hair and blue eyes who lives in the suburbs has the same problems as an Arab or a black guy in the suburbs. Afterwards there are things which come into play which are a bit more complicated to do with identity, but the first questions which need dealing with are the same for everyone, and it's the same problem for whites as blacks.
"I think they've identified the wrong war. They think it's a war between the whites and the blacks and the Arabs. They think it's a war between the secularists and the Muslims. But it's above all a war between the rich and the poor."
Just Like Tomorrow is published by Harvill Secker. Jim Wolfreys is the author, with Peter Fysh, of The Politics of Racism in France published by Palgrave MacMillan.