DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
Cars overturned after anti-Israel protest in 2009
My friend Sara loathes Paris.  Even a few hours in the City of Lights causes her great dismay and gets her red in the cheeks.  She swears, that without fail, every visit to Paris she endures encounters with the most cantankerous people and the most insufferable inconveniences.  Paris is out to get her.

Perhaps this was regional bias coming from the Lille native, I thought.  Like many other hip hop dancers from her hometown, she was just projecting a similar brand of East Coast vs. West Coast rap bitterness towards their rival city.  But rather than call her out on it, I enabled.

"Yeah people here can be pretty rude.  They're not very friendly or open to people.  Plus there's a lot of racism too."

Oooh, the R-word.  Sara responded, "Racism?  Really?  I don't think there is much."

What??  Of course there's racism in Paris and in France as a whole, duhh.  She must be blinded by her white girl privilege, thought the self-righteous American blogger.  Her denial felt like a betrayal to her embrace of hip hop and to her rainbow coalition of friends.

Protesters against France's acts of anti-Semitism during WWII
I looked at Sara sitting across from me, decked out in Dickies khakis and a fresh purple tee like a Cali chola, her black Chuck Taylor's matching her geek chic thick-rimmed glasses.  As she leaned forward on the table, her necklace swung around, dangling over her Big Mac.  At the end of the chain, a small six-point star served as its pendulum.  It was the Star of David.

I realized that I wasn't seeing the whole picture.  Race is an American preoccupation.  In France, it's about a clash of cultures.  It's about immigrants.  It's about religion.  What prejudice I see as racist at it's core, she may see as something else.

France is home to not only Europe's largest Muslim population, but to its largest Jewish population as well.  And the country has had a long, troubled history with its Jewish community.  Guilt from the country's complicity in the Holocaust during the dark days of Nazi occupation still persist. 

In recent years, renewed anti-semitism has erupted as Israel-Palestine conflicts escalate.  Anti-Israel protesters have sacked Jewish businesses in Paris.  In the immigrant communities of the banlieues, Muslim and Jewish youth scuffle in the classroom and on the playground.  French Jews have been the targets of violence including Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed.  The assaults have led many French Jews to flee for Israel while others stay and seek resolutions from the Sarkozy government.

The majority of France's 600,000 Jews come from waves of North African immigration since the 1950s.  Many of these families immigrated to escape religious persecution in places like Morocco and Tunisia in the first place.  They fear that history may be repeating itself.

Protest against desecration of Muslim and Jewish graves in 2008
I'm uncertain of Sara's family history.  Maybe her parents came from Tunisia, escaping the riots of the 60s, after their ancestors settled there from Spain.  Maybe her family came from Eastern Europe post-WWII looking for refuge.  Maybe like the rapper Shyne, Sara just recently converted to Judaism. 

In any case, I'm sure religion plays some role in her life and influences her worldview.  But I doubt Sara would be caught up in the recent religious tensions, the line in the sand dividing neighbors.  Her positive outlook and teethy smiles won't let her.  It's because her sunny disposition is endangered by the rudeness of Parisians that she has such distaste for the city.  She's looking to overcome the disputes and connect with people, not shut herself in.

And so she continues to visit Paris nearly every other month.  She comes for the hip hop events here.  She comes for the people in these spaces.  She comes for the community.  Whether black, white, brown; Muslim, Christian, or Jewish; Sara has nothing but love to give.  And judging by her popularity, that's also what she gets in return. 

In such a sheltered environment, it's no wonder that the "isms" don't really apply.



    Brian is a writer, dancer, activist, and general hip hop head from New York City. He is currently working towards his Master's in Global Communications in Paris.  


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