Paris’ 'Bronx': A Hub for Street Violence and Anti-Semitism

by Tanya Thomas on Oct 6 2008 12:39 PM

The infamous history of one of New York’s 5 boroughs, the Bronx, seems to have re-established itself in a shabby northeastern district of Paris. Home to the city’s biggest Jewish community, the district has witnessed a sudden surge in street violence. Now, a leading national newspaper has nicknamed it "the Bronx of Paris".
Paris is the world's most visited city. But few tourists venture out to the gritty parts of the 19th arrondissement where high-rise apartment blocks recall those in France's restive suburbs that exploded into nationwide rioting in 2005.

"I'm afraid to go into the housing estates," said Mourad, a 35-year-old local who asked for his surname not to be published, who listed a series of violent events he had personally witnessed in the area.

"The Bronx in the north of Paris?" asked Le Monde newspaper last month, referring to the New York borough that until recent years was synonymous with urban blight.

The high-rise estates, with names like Riquet, Curial, or Cambrai, are mostly peaceful by day. But at night, an air of menace descends.

Groups of young people hang out at the foot of the tower blocks, drugs and money change hands, sometimes weapons. Battles with youngsters from other estates are frequent, often over territorial disputes or maybe over a girl.

"The estate is the tribe. They behave like in a bygone age," said Djilali, who runs a shop near the Cambrai estate. He also declined to give his surname.

In mid-September, he said, police had to mount a major operation just to be able to go into one of the estates to arrest a young man.

"The police aren't welcome here. Nobody cooperates with them," said Djilali.

On September 7 a young man was shot dead in the area. On September 10 another was injured in a gun attack. On September 15, two youths were stabbed. Violent incidents have been increasing since the start of the year. But the most high-profile case came in June when a Jewish teenager was left in a coma after being beaten with metal bars.

Officials said the attack, from which the victim later recovered, was motivated by anti-Semitism.

Around 40,000 Jews live in this district of 190,000 people, which also has a high proportion of Muslims of north African origin and which has an unemployment rate of 16 percent, much higher than for the rest of the capital.

Unlike the Bronx when it was at its worst, the 19th arrondissement is not a no-go zone.

The district has pockets of period buildings and affluent residents. It draws hordes of Parisians throughout the week to "La Villette" complex, with its ultra-modern science museum and multi-themed gardens, or to the green slopes, footpaths and traditional puppet show -- "Le Guignol" -- of the Buttes Chaumont, a former quarry transformed into a vast park in the 19th-century Haussmannian rebuilding of Paris.

A majority of the Jews lives around Buttes Chaumont, near where the June attack on the teenager took place. The community was shocked by that incident and its fears have been heightened by subsequent attacks, such as the one on three young Jews in September.

The three were wearing Jewish skullcaps at the time, but officials said that the assault was not anti-Semitic in nature.

A sign of the growing concern came late last month when France's chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim said in a message for the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashana, that he hoped "that life in the 19th arrondissement would become pleasant again".

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe for his part recently brought together representatives of the various communities who live in the district to discuss the rising violence.

"There are streets where young Jews are afraid to go. And there are many attacks that people just don't bother to report to the police," said Habib Meyer, a local representative of the Jewish community.

He sought not to exaggerate the scale of the problem, noting that "this is not 1939 in Germany."

"But one cannot ignore the tensions that exist," he said.

Meyer said the attacks on young Jews did not necessarily stem from tension over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as most of them are not carried out by youths of north African Arab origin but by black youngsters.

He denied that Jews in the area were creating a sort of ghetto for themselves by opening Jewish shops, schools and restaurants.

"There are lots of non-Jewish teachers in our schools," he noted.

A young black man asked by AFP why Jewish youngsters got attacked so often, said: "They want to keep to themselves. That's why we provoke them a little."

The communities do mingle in this area which has double the amount of social housing than the Paris average. Melissa, a Muslim high school student of Algerian origin, for example said all her friends were Jewish.


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