Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Class Divide on French "Beaches"

August 7, 2007

French Beaches Reflect Divide
Between Affluent, Immigrants
August 7, 2007; Page A4

LA COURNEUVE, France -- Five years ago, Paris inaugurated a city beach with imported sand, swimming pools and cafés along the Seine River.

The city's socialist mayor dreamed up "Paris Plage" to offer beach time to low-income families who couldn't afford real holidays -- particularly those in the housing projects of the city's poor suburbs, or banlieues. Luring them to the urban beach, it was thought, would also bridge the chasm that has opened along racial and religious lines between Paris's tony center and its seedier outskirts.

La Courneuve Plage is in a middle-school playground a block away from the place where violent riots erupted at the end of 2005.
It hasn't worked out that way. Instead, many suburbs are rolling out their own beaches. And rather than bridging differences, the competing plages have deepened the social and economic divide between affluent central Paris and its mostly immigrant outskirts.

For many of the mostly Arab and African immigrants living on the outer edges of the city, Paris Plage hasn't been the welcoming oasis it was supposed to be. Banlieue families, some of whom wore Muslim headscarves and brought along cheap picnics, complain they get cold stares from beach-goers and organizers at Paris Plage. The cost and hassle of commuting to the center of Paris also keeps them away.

"Paris Plage is chic, and they aren't happy to see people from the banlieues," says Farid Benamar, 21 years old, manning the entrance to La Courneuve Plage, in one of France's most depressed suburbs. "La Courneuve has a bad image. But nobody discriminates against us here."

Located in a middle-school playground, La Courneuve Plage is a vastly different experience from the beach in central Paris. The site is only a block away from the place where violent riots erupted at the end of 2005, when suburban youth's anger at France's failure to better integrate its immigrant population spilled into the streets.

In place of the picture-perfect Paris Plage setting, where fine sand stretches along the banks of the river, La Courneuve Plage is a gritty jumble of immigrant culture. While women in Paris sun themselves in skimpy bikinis along the Seine, in this suburb, mothers, some wearing veils, seek shade under picnic umbrellas. Vendors sell merguez sausages instead of croissants and Niçoise salads on offer at the Paris Plage cafés. Music from the African island nation of the Comoros greeted visitors on the opening day of La Courneuve Plage last month, whereas traditional French songs play in Paris.

But this year, La Courneuve Plage has been so popular that it had to turn away kids coming in by bus from neighboring towns. "It's more working-class but it's more friendly," says Salim Chekhab, a 33-year-old wealth manager at HSBC PLC who grew up in La Courneuve, and brings his three kids back during the summer.

Most French people head to the coast or the mountains in July and August. Yet for many residents of the modern banlieues around Paris such as La Courneuve, summer vacation isn't a given. Unemployment runs high -- at least 25% in this suburb -- and families live crammed into crumbling housing projects.

"Everyone can't wait for the holidays, but a lot of people here are not able go on vacation," says Ziani Sana, who used to spend the summer at the beach in her native Morocco before moving to La Courneuve six years ago. She and her husband, a technician, can't afford to take their two kids on vacation this summer.

But many don't feel welcome at Paris Plage either. "There's a lack of friendliness," says Eugène-Henri Moré, the communist deputy mayor of La Courneuve, who was born in France to Cameroonian parents.

Moreover, for many families in La Courneuve, the €4.20 ($5.80) round-trip train ticket to Paris is a burden, says Mr. Moré. Paris's city hall estimates the percentage of Paris Plage visitors coming from the suburbs has fallen since its inauguration, in part because it has become more popular with tourists.

So two years ago, Mr. Moré decided to organize his own plage. The city council set aside part of its budget to import sand, palm trees and lawn chairs to recreate a beach-like atmosphere. The objective was two-fold: Entertain locals and put a couple dozen of them to work patrolling the beach.

La Courneuve didn't have the deep pockets of Paris. For the first edition of the banlieue beach in 2005, Mr. Moré had to persuade the local fire department to come twice a day to change the water in the swimming pool to prevent it from becoming unsanitary. With a budget of €70,000, or about $95,000, Mr. Moré could only afford to open the plage for two weeks.

But the crowds came. On sunny days, the beach attracted more than 2,000 people. Last year, in its second edition, La Courneuve Plage stretched over four weeks and drew 42,000 visitors.

This year, the city was again strapped for funds, but the popularity of the plage made it easier to solicit donations. Mr. Moré and his team convinced building companies to donate the sand, while a local electrical company wired the park with light free. Local cultural associations offer free judo and boxing classes. Mr. Moré calculates this year's plage will cost €220,000, compared with €2.4 million for Paris Plage.

Despite its big budget, Paris Plage isn't very kid-friendly and caters more to elderly men playing pétanque, an outdoor bowling game. Mr. Moré this year added more attractions for children. Four large trampolines and a sand pit for beach volleyball were set up in the shadow of a high-rise housing project.

Mr. Moré is happy with the success of La Courneuve Plage, but he worries the segregation of banlieue residents from Parisian mainstream life keeps deepening. "The beach is just a drop in the bucket for people who live with discrimination. I would like for there to be no need for La Courneuve Plage."

Write to Christina Passariello at christina.passariello@wsj.com1

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