A Visit to Vitrolles

ROTH, MARCO

HINTS OF MENACE A Visit to Vitrolles By Marco Roth Vitrolles As recently as 35 years ago, this French town was a small village with a castle perched high on a cliff, its cathedral cupola...

...One shouldn't use racism to make it to City Hall...
...Yet Maurer, himself an immigrant from Germany, tells me that "the FN are doing exactly what Hitler did in the 1930s...
...reveals the way the media-bandied "presentable face" of the FN quickly changes once the elections are over and the journalists with their cameras and notebooks have returned to Paris...
...The silence that fills Vitrolles in the immediate aftermath of the election now seems clear...
...This serious turn exasperates Said...
...He talks about the history of Muslims in France, and...
...France has mocked us, it has crushed us, it has insulted us...
...I am not an objective observer in Vitrolles...
...I have no better luck when the stores reopen, around 3 o'clock...
...Marc-Christophe is more concerned...
...Touched by crime and unemployment, disillusioned with the Socialist Mayor, it would seem the Maurer family would be perfect swing voters for the National Front...
...We have been misquoted too often," they say, and direct me to the Caf?© Hacienda on the Avenue Jean Moulin (a hero of the French Resistance killed by the Nazis...
...Here, fear and discontent are spoken of plainly...
...recalls the role of Algerian, Tunisian and Senegalese troops in the effort to liberate the South of France at the end of World War II...
...It is this silence, this atmosphere of censorship before any censorship has been officially dictated, that constitutes the first sign of menace in the siesta-quiet of what seems an ordinary town...
...Down the road are the housing projects known collectively as "Les Pins" (The Pines...
...There are several men clustered around the bar: one in a suit, the others unshaven, wearing sweatpants and leather jackets...
...Nonetheless, this silence takes on a particularly sinister cast when one realizes that just down the road there are others who fear for their own security, their livelihood and perhaps their lives...
...While the castle and village still remain, they have been joined by shopping malls and housing projects colored rose-apricot and green in an attempt to blend with the framing pines and granite cliffs...
...They are afraid that their own children will react with equal violence...
...Although she holds the title, M?©gret Has made no secret of the fact that it is her husband Bruno...
...who will make the important decisions...
...The houses along these roads have high fences, razor-wiretopped gates, and large, barking dogs...
...is a long-standing tradition, as is the sense of small-town community in which everyone knows everyone else's affairs...
...its first absolute majority...
...Not all the Maghr?©bins of Vitrolles agree...
...Since the election, I'm afraid to go out at night," says an Algerian cradling her baby...
...Serge Maurer is 57, but he looks older...
...and with rumors...
...they don't,"he says goodhumoredly, pointing to the two blonde girls and his tall, blue-eyed friend MarcChristophe...
...Traffic circulates around its wide rotaries and along the web of roads that connect the town to that port city...
...You never know who is listening...
...Despite the FN campaign posters which show cartoon white families being robbed by cartoon "Arabs,' even a cursory glance at the projects of Les Pins reveals a diverse group of "blacks, blancs et beurs" (beurs refers to North Africans), who are victims and aggressors, fearful and feared...
...When they are satisfied that I am a foreigner and will not turn my notes or my tape over to the police, or worse, they invite me to sit down...
...They are all young men in their early 20s, like me...
...It is they who demand things of me, a stranger in their community...
...The modern Vitrolles is a place where the workers in the industrial zone to the west of Marseilles go to sleep or to shop...
...But as I try vainly to question the owner of a video store, a man hobbles up to me on a steel cane and offers to talk outside...
...A visit to Vitrolles, where Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-Right National Front recently won a mayoral election with 52.4 per cent of the vote...
...No one is talking here either, and I am asked to leave...
...Some of them emerge clutching papers, none of them have anything to say...
...He leans toward me and whispers, "a worker can't talkto you if he wants to keep his job...
...Bilal, whose parents were born in Algeria when it was considered part of France, is a French citizen...
...A group of what the FN would call "Arabs," a term they pejoratively apply to a broadrange of people from several North African countries, are talking animatedly in another part of the yard...
...I recognize this cafe as what Le Nouvel Observateur called "the meeting place of the FN militants...
...Marco Roth, a freelance writer, is a firsttime contributor to The New Leader...
...He flaunts his Yankees cap and gold watch and picks up the tab for three of his white friends at a caf?© near the bus station...
...Three mothers talk of gangs of skinheads who roam around at night in a four-by-four, armed with bats...
...I have friends who voted FN...
...The barman, belly sticking out from his green shirt, does not want to talk politics, "Vitrolles is a beautiful city...
...A stroke has paralyzed his leg...
...Don't you think so...
...Said refuses to take anything too seriously...
...Laundry flaps from the balconies...
...For the moment they are ignored...
...They don't know how to justify themselves," he says...
...Said is employed by a local company...
...As a Jew, I recognize the struggles of my ancestors in the stories told by Bilal and others...
...There are only 20,000 eligible voters in a town of 40,000, a demographic that signals a large group of young people just below voting age...
...This morning the town is quiet, stores are closed...
...speaking as if to an invisible adversary...
...Bilal is a good choice as spokesperson...
...I am disappointed in the entire political class...
...His life has not been an easy one...
...Wondering if this choice of location was an unintentional irony or a deliberate attempt to confuse and corrupt a historical memory, I enter the caf...
...For all they know, I could be someone from the National Front trying to stir up trouble...
...he gets up to return to work, "Me, I am white like snow," he says, and he stalks off...
...I don't understand why...
...Then, we did not represent a danger for France, now we are a danger...
...Already I have friends who won't speak to me because I'm not afraid to say the truth in front of others...
...declared ineligible to run because of campaign finance abuses in 1995...
...Our victory is my husband's victory," she declared on election night...
...On a corner, a group of four old men and women are talking about how "Madame M?©gret will make them sweep the streets," but they fall silent as I approach and refuse to answer any questions...
...It is the morning after Catherine M?©gret's investiture as Mayor (France being a lay Republic, there is no concept of "swearing in...
...In spite of this status, his sense of disillusionment and his rage are clear: "France has betrayed us, it has betrayed all of its Muslims...
...It is the silence of a machine set in motion, the imperceptible white noise of the bureaucratic decisions and paper shuffling that replace campaign slogans, all the more dangerous for happening in silence...
...The silence on political matters by what Zola calls "les honn??tes gens" ?? shop owners, small-businessmen, the people with a stake in the local economy...
...No one wants to lose business because of gossip...
...Objectivity," said director Jean-Luc Godard, "is three minutes for Hitler and three minutes for the Jews...
...After the campaign posters and propaganda have come down, no public discourse replaces them...
...Je les emmerde/J'emmerde les fachos" which translates roughly as "I piss off the fascists...
...Bilal, broad with a shaved head and wearing a track suit, names himself as the spokesperson for Association Convergences...
...For him there is no imminent threat, only an already-present absurdity...
...In contrast to the guarded silence of the shopping center, the courtyard is loud with the cries of children...
...We don't talk to the press...
...HINTS OF MENACE A Visit to Vitrolles By Marco Roth Vitrolles As recently as 35 years ago, this French town was a small village with a castle perched high on a cliff, its cathedral cupola rising above the red roofs of the houses...
...In Vitrolles, a constant file of men, mostly white, some young, some old, some with crewcuts, some with the tanned and pitted faces stereotypical of Southern France, pass in and out of City Hall, a grotesque building of pink concrete and tinted glass on Nelson Mandela Place...
...The other two women, both white, agree, but add that they have been afraid for a long time...
...Now they don't say anything...
...This is a recently formed group that hopes to offer nonviolent resistance through demonstrations and a voter registration drive...
...I recognize that for these people politics is not just a game and racist rhetoric is not just demagoguery...
...The quiet of the afternoon is broken only by three girls going on 16 who are singing, "J'emmerde les fachos/ Je les emmerde...
...His son, who works in the video store, was the victim of a violent car-jacking...
...I work...
...Unlike American-style high rises, these projects consist of several five- or six-story buildings grouped around a wide central courtyard where, as long as there is daylight, children play soccer, mothers sit and talk, and unemployed young men hang out, smoke, listen to music...
...The buildings show their colorful facades to the street, hiding their bleak gray backs from passing cars...

Vol. 80 • May 1997 • No. 8


 
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