FOCUS ON FRANCE
Minority and Refugee Populations in Mantes la Jolie
React to Emerging World Politics
by Melody Rautenstraus
Located about 30 miles west of Paris, France, Mantes la Jolie is a Parisian suburb that welcomes refugees and resists profiling immigrants. Like many towns along the Seine River, Mantes offers a repertoire of businesses and stunning architecture. But its exceptional beauty stems from the people who live there. The population is primarily African immigrants, which gives this city a unique mélange of cultures.
Though many French natives prefer the city life, residents of Mantes la Jolie offer a different perspective. They celebrate their community’s cultural diversity and express empathy for refugees and minorities. As a result, the city hums with hope and resilience.
Kadija Tehhoune, an education consultant in Mantes la Jolie, is a French native whose parents emigrated from Morocco. Tehhoune beams as she talks about the impact of these two cultures on her identity, which parallels many others in the community. Pride in the cultural multiplicity of this community is widely shared.
However, rather than reporting on the city’s celebration of diversity and multi-culturalism, media focus on the city’s biggest housing project, Le Val Fourré, known as one of Europe’s biggest foreign ghettos. Tehhoune notes that media coverage disproportionately features negative views dating back 20 years when violence and fights with police made national headlines.
Though Mantes la Jolie is not devoid of problems common to most cities, such as petty crime and sexual harassment, many Le Val Fourré residents believe the media dwell
on these stories to the exclusion of the positive ones. Consequently, public perception remains unchanged and the city still has a negative association for most outsiders.
Charlotte (last name withheld per her request) is also an education specialist working with disadvantaged youth in Mantes la Jolie. She agrees that the media coverage of this suburb is primarily negative, and notes that distrust of immigrants is largely linked to the belief that they don’t work. Others think that incidents of terrorism, including the February 3, 2017, Louvre Museum terrorist attempt, contribute to suspicion of immigrants. Reports like these, coupled with biased and outright fake news stories, add to negative misconceptions.
To the contrary, both Tehhoune and Charlotte relate their positive experiences within Le Val Fourré, citing “a tranquil community of mixed cultural identities – and a comfortable environment that has violence and crime proportionate to any other city.” The two women emphasize the importance of visiting Mantes la Jolie to get an authentic view of the city and dispel propaganda.
As a primarily immigrant community, Mantes la Jolie is also a notable example of how current politics and rising extremism can impact communities directly.
South Korean immigrant, Lynn Min, describes the difficulties she encountered as a foreigner trying to secure a good job in France because of strict policies that favor French citizens and preclude hiring foreign laborers.
Min came to France six years ago with the belief that her prestigious status and qualifications in the Korean fashion industry would be respected. Instead she learned that qualifications gained in other countries are not equally valued with locally acquired skills.
In addition to her difficulties securing a job, Min recounts feeling isolated and disrespected until she learned to speak the language. She empathizes with refugees and other immigrants, who have fled dangerous environments and juggled a myriad of hazards, who then face further discrimination because of language and cultural barriers.
Mayeul Gauzit speaks with authority of hurdles faced by frightened refugees arriving in France. Gauzit is a staffer with the French NGO French NGO Enfance Majuscule,
an agency safeguarding children from all forms of mal-treatment. Gauzit spent seven months in “The Jungle,” of Calais, a camp in northern France with 10,000 refugees, including 1,200 children. His work centered on an initiative to provide safety, support, necessities and education for these refugee kids, some as young as 10 years old, who were often forced to flee by themselves. In an article published by Enfance Majuscule, Gauzit writes:
These children travel thousands of kilometers alone and arrive in an unknown, and often hostile, country whose language they do not speak. Imagine for a moment the anguish they feel leaving behind their lives to escape war, the anxiety they feel in the absence of loving parents or family, the desire for love that only a loved one can give, and celebrating a 10th birthday in a shantytown with only themselves and their memories for comfort.
Even with receiving aid from organizations and governments living conditions in these camps are harsh, and the incidence of abuse and prejudice that these kids experience is even more horrifying. Gauzit quotes a child named Naveed, who fled from Afghanistan with the hope of finding a better life. The boy says, “I came to Europe because I believed there would be human rights here, but there is no more here than in Afghanistan. There, the police do not hit the children.”
Human stories, like those of the Calais Camp children, or immigrants being spit on by extremist hate groups such as “skinheads,” put a human face on how dangerous doctrines directly affect individuals.
Elementary school teacher, Céline Dupont, reacts to the frightening example of xenophobic policy arbitrarily set by the U.S. President. In response to Trump’s blanket decision to limit immigration into the United States by refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, she comments, “We cannot just close our eyes to refugees or close our borders. It’s not responsible…”
Sharing this view, Gauzit observes, “The American election served as an indicator of increased xenophobia, misogyny, and extremist behavior in Europe.” Conversely, peaceful activists like Gauzit and Dupont stress the need to expand initiatives providing aid to refugees. “We really have to fight to keep our systems such as education and healthcare in place. France remains a wonderful place to live, with the good quality of life … but we need to maintain balance and freedom despite the rise of terrorism,” says Dupont. People fleeing tyranny need compassion and empathy, not slammed doors. The efforts of educators Kadija Tehhoune, Céline Dupont, and Charlotte, of Mayeul Gauzit, and so many others in NGOs and aide organizations, reflect growing sensitivity to the needs and well-being of migrants across Europe.
In Mantes la Jolie, an elementary school displays a banner with kids from diverse backgrounds holding hands around the word peace. Here, in a city full of immigrants, a city still widely known for its ghetto and long past outbreaks
of violence, one sees compassion and love in action.
And here, one finds new possibilities for sustainable peace.
Melody Rautenstraus is a graduate of Colorado State University, where she studied journalism, French, and international studies. In addition to her roles as Associate Editor of DoveTales and The Peace Correspondent, Melody will serve as the 2017 Writing for Peace Youth Summit Coordinator. Melody is currently teaching English to children in France.
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