PARIS — At 23, they are already celebrities, France’s youngest public intellectuals.
But Badroudine Said Abdallah and Mehdi Meklat are not graduates of the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, and they do not reside on the storied Left Bank. In fact, neither sees the point of a university education, and their world begins where Paris ends, which is the point of their entire intellectual project.
Their columns for the Liberation newspaper’s Bondy Blog, their documentaries and their 2015 novel all reveal the two friends’ overarching intent: showing the world the complicated reality of the Paris suburbs where they were born and raised.
“What we try to do,” Mehdi said recently, “is give voice to those who aren’t heard particularly well — or who are heard badly.”
For many, the Parisian suburbs — the banlieues — have become a synonym for everything wrong with contemporary France: unemployment, racial segregation, youth violence, anti-Semitism and, now, radical Islam.
If the Brussels district of Molenbeek was the major planning hub for the attacks on Paris in November and on Brussels last week, French politicians have started referring to the periphery of Paris as a “French Molenbeek.” But since long before either attack, these neighborhoods have been considered zones of lawlessness and social decay.
The banlieues were the site of youth riots in 2005 that triggered a state of national emergency, and they are still the perch from which the provocateur Dieudonné M’bala M’bala repeatedly rails against the “Jewish slave drivers” who he says secretly run France. It was originally in a banlieue prison that Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly planned the January 2015 attacks on the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. And it was in the banlieue of Bagneux that a gang assaulted and murdered Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish cellphone salesman, in 2006, merely because he was Jewish.
Last week, French authorities arrested a man in the banlieue of Argenteuil who they said was in the “advanced stages” of planning yet another terrorist attack.
Many of these suburbs — largely developed after decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s — were built up quickly with housing projects for the millions of largely North African, West African and South Asian workers who arrived in France. But throughout the nation’s postwar economic boom, the distance between these communities and the grand boulevards of nearby Paris grew.
Marginalization led to discontent, discontent led to unrest, and unrest led to violence — or so the popular narrative goes.
“What we try to show are the inner lives of people here,” he added.
To that end, Badrou and Mehdi’s novel, “Burn Out,” is a fictionalized account of the 2013 suicide of Djamal Chaab, who set himself on fire outside an unemployment agency after years of struggling to find work. “When things don’t go as they should,” the novel begins, “you have to leave. When there’s fire. When water starts to rise, almost to drown you, you have to flee.”
“In France, we call black people and Arab people ‘minorités visibles.’ But no, we are the invisible minorities,” said Eros Sana, a leader of the Green Party in Sarcelles, a community northwest of Paris. “When you turn on the TV, you will not see everyday stories about the banlieues — love stories, school stories, anything like that.
“These parts of France are marginalized, and they lack representation except for Badrou and Mehdi. It’s rare to have someone who is black and African and on TV talking something other than just politics.”
Mehdi comes from an Algerian family that settled in France during decolonization. Badrou is the eldest of seven siblings, and he still shares a room with two of his brothers. His father is an imam in La Courneuve, informally known as “the sixth island of the Comoros” because of its sizable community of immigrants from the East African archipelago.
“For a long time, French discourse has been the discourse of assimilation,” Badrou said. “But there’s a real hypocrisy in the idea of assimilation. It begs the question: Who is the better French than the others? Who really merits the title ‘French’?”
“This dogmatism is very dangerous in the end,” he added. “We proclaim equality all the time, but the reality is that equality is no longer there.”
“Here, we’re only 10 or 20 minutes from the Elysee,” Mehdi said, referring to the seat of the French presidency. “But we’re a world apart from the institutions and the top politicians that run them. The young people here — they don’t feel French like others do.”
That the two friends are still primarily based in La Courneuve carries a special significance.
It was there in 2005 that Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s interior minister at the time, made his infamous proclamation: “On va nettoyer au Karcher la cité” — “We’re going to blast-clean the city.” He was addressing youth violence in the banlieues, but many in La Courneuve heard in his words a pledge to oppress minority identities and communities.
Responding to that statement has long motivated Badrou and Mehdi.
“There is a rapport between Islam and France — and Europe,” Badrou said. “And, finally, there aren’t contradictions between that which is ‘Muslim’ and that which is ‘French.’ There’s just a dialogue.”
“In France, there is a real fear of the word ‘community,’ ” Mehdi said. “But identity is inscribed in community. Today, it’s difficult for certain people to live in France and be French because of a certain religion or because of a certain nationality.”
Most of all, the two reject what they consider the imposition of a singular French identity that effaces all other affiliations. “In the world today,” Mehdi continued, “people are multifaceted, and they have multiple identities. I refuse to have just one identity. . . . I am French, and, after that, Algerian, and, after that . . .
“An identity isn’t just one thing. It’s many.”