‘Building bridges’ in a Parisian suburb amid unrest fears

From our special correspondent in Malakoff — After weeks of unrest, a team of social workers tasked with preventing public unrest in the Paris suburb of Malakoff made their rounds ahead of Bastille Day. On a sunny weekend evening, engaging with the community seemed to be working.

Children with glitter on their cheeks waved balloons around while French pop singer Colleen performed for dozens of onlookers.

Celebrations in Malakoff, a suburb southwest of Paris, went smoothly on Thursday despite fears of unrest in France in recent weeks. While there was a heavy police presence, filtering into the square where the festivities took place, five social workers monitored the crowd throughout the evening.

Five men in purple T-shirts were on a mission to “to mediate“There are two sides. Their main goal is to try to prevent conflict Defuse public unrest through dialogue. They also work hard to connect with local residents. “It’s a job that really makes you feel useful,” Samba Baye says with a smile. “We can help homeless people improve their lives, raise awareness among young people about certain issues, or try to calm things down when things get out of hand. Sometimes, like tonight, we’ll be there just in case One needs us.”

Bayer was one of Malakoff’s first social workers when the program was established in 2020. Today, five of those social workers work five days a week in various neighborhoods in the town. They are all employed by Promévil, an association specializing in social work that operates in partnership with the municipality and the state public housing department.

Social worker Samba Baille watches Bastille Day fireworks in Malakoff, a suburb southwest of Paris, France, July 13, 2023. © Cyrielle Cabot, France 24

“So how do you feel tonight?”

Earlier Thursday night, Baye and his colleagues strolled through the crowd ahead of the 11 p.m. fireworks display. Some greeted them with a smile and said “good evening”, while others shook hands and chatted for a while.

Suddenly, another social worker, Baba, slips away and walks up to a group of homeless people sitting on a bench.

When the homeless saw Baba approaching, they had big smiles on their faces. They chatted for a while, then Baba stepped back and the atmosphere seemed to calm down. “We know them well. They hang out in the square a lot and unfortunately, they drink a lot. I tried to explain to them that tonight they have to be more careful because it’s a special night,” Baba said.

Meters away, just behind a cordon set up by the city police, a group of teenagers burst into laughter. This time it was Karim, who had been a social worker for 10 years, who started the conversation. “So how do you feel about the evening?” he asked them. “Cool to set the mood,” one of them replied, before pointing to the rooftops behind him and yelling, “But I want to watch the fireworks from above!”

Karim quickly dismissed the idea, pointing out that climbing buildings is not only illegal but dangerous. The teenager finally agreed with him and dropped the silly idea. The conversation then continued, with jokes and references to Mansour Barnaoui, a young man from Malakoff who is now a mixed martial arts champion and a local teen idol.

The conversation turned to unrest in recent weeks after police shot Nahel, an Algerian teenager, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre last month. Local children took out their mobile phones one after another, showing pictures that left a deep impression on people. One said he took part in the violence, while another admitted with a look of disappointment that he had been forced to stay at home. But they all came to the same conclusion: “We agree with Naher, what happened to him is not fair!”

“They’re good kids, they listen,” Karim said. ‘It’s a culmination of the three years we’ve spent building a relationship with them,’ he added.

read more‘We must listen to them’: Youth associations on the front lines during Nakhle unrest

“Give advice, not orders, and build bridges”

Before the festivities began, Karim, Baye and Baba were sure that the evening would be peaceful. But by afternoon, there was palpable anxiety in the town.

Around 4:30 pm, the team began their routine tour through the streets of Malakoff. They checked every nook and cranny for damage and took pictures of the illegal dump for about two hours.

Hours before Bastille Day celebrations on July 13, 2023, Malakoff social worker Samba Baye went to the caretaker's cottage to assess the situation.
Hours before Bastille Day celebrations on July 13, 2023, Malakoff social worker Samba Baye went to the caretaker’s cottage to assess the situation. © Cyrielle Cabot, France 24

Karim, Baye and Baba also stopped periodically to chat with passers-by, and in each building they greeted caretakers and listened to comments and complaints.

On their list, they noticed a broken door or two and some neighborhood issues. However, one question kept popping up: “So, will it be a busy night?”

Malakoff has been relatively unscathed by the uproar that followed Naher’s death. “Some cars and dumpsters were burned and a store was damaged,” Bayer said. He attributes this “good track record” in part to the efforts of local social workers.

“We spoke to these young people during the riots. They were able to express their feelings of injustice and anger,” he said. “From our perspective, we were able to raise their awareness and explain to them that not only is violence not the solution, but that if they engage in acts of vandalism, they run a great risk. Some young people have told us that they understand, And they’re going to try and talk to their friends about it.”

Bayer also noted, “We are the people who solve everyday problems. There is a lack of public services here at night. The town hall closes at 5pm and there is nothing after that. Social workers help maintain order.” Always in touch. “

This is especially important “because the relationship between the police and the public is not at its best at the moment,” Baba added.

Their job, Baba said, is to “give advice, not orders, and build bridges. That’s more useful now than ever.”

Malakoff social workers Samba Baye and Baba Diop talk to local residents hours before Bastille Day celebrations on July 13, 2023.
Malakoff social workers Samba Baye and Baba Diop talk to local residents hours before Bastille Day celebrations on July 13, 2023. © Cyrielle Cabot, France 24

It’s a sentiment shared by many local residents, who often express their gratitude to the team with a simple and heartfelt “Thank God you’re here.”

This article is a translation of the original French text.

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