Win Does Little to Elevate People of Saint-Denis
By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 1998; Page C6
Thousands jammed the large square in front of city hall to salute France's best World Cup showing in history, and as many as 100,000 streamed onto the avenue of the Champs Elysees. French President Jacques Chirac said tonight was "the greatest day in the history of French sport."
Here, in this modest northern Paris suburb, the thronging, horn-honking and singing masses mostly confined their celebrations to the local squares and streets.
Down one of those streets, the rue Gabriel-Peri, locals could glimpse in the distance the silver spaceship-like structure of the Stade de France, where the victory was won. And that's as close as they got to the game.
The brand new stadium was placed in this poor corner of the Paris metropolitan area in hopes it would revive the blighted economy and relieve some of the highest poverty in urban France. So far, it has revived the hopes of the citizens of Saint-Denis, but it has not brought riches.
"There are more people here on market day than tonight," commented Milan Nikolic as he strolled down the rue Gabriel-Peri before the game. Though he had spent 10 days trying to reach the telephone switchboard for ticket sales, he had been unsuccessful and was planning to watch the game on the giant screen erected near the stadium.
"They said the stadium would change Saint-Denis and it didn't. All we have are decorations in the street," Nikolic said. "What's too bad is that we live so close and can't get in. The stadium is inaccessible."
As France has advanced in the World Cup, the mood of Saint-Denis has lifted. Several residents said today they fervently hoped their country could win its first World Cup in the final July 12. But few held out hope that the $500 million stadium, not counting the cost of such extras as new subway and commuter rail stations, could turn around this suburb of 91,000 people.
For one thing, the stadium has no home team. After the World Cup, the Stade de France will host concerts by the Rolling Stones and the aging French rocker Johnny Hallyday. But no professional soccer team has agreed to make its home there.
"If the stadium works for something, fine. But if it stays empty, it won't do anything. If it's abandoned, what's the point?" asked Dominique Jeanniot as she shopped in Saint-Denis with her baby son, Julien, and her husband, Jean-Luc Renia.
A few months ago, Le Monde newspaper said the county that includes Saint-Denis "seems to concentrate all the ills that afflict French society: unemployment, poverty, insecurity, urban crowding."
Since the 1970s, dozens of major industrial corporations have fled; many of the citizens who remain are poor immigrants. On the shopping street, women wear African robes and Moslem head scarves; the education system is so poorly funded that students, parents and teachers alike went on strike against it for several weeks this spring.
Saint-Denis Mayor Patrick Braouzec, said in a telephone interview today that the stadium alone cannot revitalize the economy, that a huge planned development alongside the stadium of shops, offices, housing and a sports center will make the difference.
"The stadium is a locomotive for us but the cars are even more important," Braouzec said, adding that when Saint-Denis agreed to allow the stadium to be built here it had insisted that local companies be involved and local workers hired.
The impact on local commerce has its negative side, however. When a suburban rail station was moved a mile closer to the stadium, for instance, all the cafes and stores that served commuters were left in the lurch. They have banded together to request compensation, but have had little luck so far.
One shop owner, Jacques Rollando, said his bakery has lost 40 percent of its business and that his neighbors are no better off.
"Match days are relatively good. I'll do almost as well today as I used to do on a normal day before they moved the station," Rollando said. "But for the whole rest of the year, the quarter has completely changed. Most of our businesses are for sale. ... I must say that when I watch soccer on television now, it's with some bitterness."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company