An interview with Boualem Azahoum, an activist with DiverCités and El Ghorba in Lyon.
At the Social Forum of the Banlieues (FSQP) at Nanterre, Paris, in October 2008, Naima Bouteldja interviewed Boualem Azahoum, a long-standing activist living in Lyon and a member of DiverCités, a local organisation campaigning on issues such as racism, discrimination, policing, housing, education, affecting the inhabitants of the banlieues. He’s also a member of El Ghorba (‘to be in exile’), an organisation dedicated to recovering the history of immigration in France, offering support to the Chibanis, the immigrant elders from the former French colonies.
Can you recount your involvement in political activism?
I’m what you would call a Sonac, an immigrant from North Africa. I arrived in Lyon from Morocco in 1987; at that time I was a student, mainly involved in the Moroccan far- Left milieu. In France, I became a student trade unionist and my political activities made it impossible for me to return to Morocco. Then I naturally started campaigning amongst local organisations in the banlieues of Lyon as well as with immigrant organisations.
When was DiverCités created?
The DiverCités project was born in the mid ’90s, in ’93 to be precise, and we’ve been active since then, although the organisation wasn’t officially registered until 2001. DiverCités is an organisation that from its inception wanted to link up people or organisations that were working completely separately on the same issues that were preoccupying the banlieues’ inhabitants. So DiverCités gathered together secular and feminist organisations as well as Muslim ones, which were, at the time, and still are, ostracised and demonised. At the time, DiverCités for us literally meant ‘diverse cities’ i.e. communities working together based on an idea of citizenship that takes into account local conditions, our own individual journeys and our local histories.
And El Ghorba?
El Ghorba is very different. The organisation was created in 2002 to carry out work that complimented DiverCités. We mainly focus on issues around history and memory that in the past we had neglected because we had different priorities. We realised that we had an inheritance/legacy, that needed to be comprehended, compiled, worked on and shared to understand the present and to affect the future. So we started working on the difficult relationship between France and our countries of origin, on the history of immigration, its origin and its impact – the why and how.
We managed to build El Ghorba into an activist organisation but not in the classic sense: it doesn’t sign petitions or organise demonstrations, other spaces exist for those kinds of activities. Instead, El Ghorba organises conferences and tries to produce books and documentaries. The current project, which is very close to our hearts, undertaken years ago, (with more means at our disposal), consists of capturing video recordings of first generation immigrants and their experiences before they die. We already have about fifty very interesting testimonies.
We also give administrative support on a daily basis to older immigrants who often live in dire conditions with deplorable pensions, suffering from health problems, homesickness and a wholesale lack of recognition.
Was it your research around the issue of memory that led you to work on the Chibanis issue?
Yes, it was linked. Our researches led us to the so-called Sonacotra lodgings that historically are the places where single immigrant workers (as well as those married in their home countries but who travelled alone to France) were accommodated. Many stayed here and these hostels have been transformed into alternative residential homes because old immigrants could not afford to live in genuine residential homes or they refuse to as it’s not in their culture to do so.
So we started by visiting them regularly to alleviate their loneliness and step-by-step we got them to express their concerns, their problems … and we realised the extent of their difficulties. It’s a population that has always been condemned and assigned to invisibility. And if no one acts, they will depart without leaving any trace behind. They are people who came to France, lived very intense lives, sometimes harsh but lives of dignified people and, contrary to what is often said, they never bent over backwards for anybody. To say that these elders did nothing and were passive is plain wrong: many of them demonstrated, rebelled and organised strikes when needed.
And over and above this work on memory, it became obvious to us that they needed people to assist them with bureaucratic paperwork such as problems over pensions, the repatriation of the dead to their home countries … This is also an essential part of the organisation’s work.
Why did you wait for so long, until the 2000s, to look into this issue?
We were occupied with other urgent matters, as I mentioned before. Unconsciously, at the time, our priorities were not the same and it was a mistake. But sometimes that’s how things are since we couldn’t have worked on everything. Our concerns were with issues such as racism, discrimination, the police and we were far away from realising the plight of the elders. And these people, who are ultimately our parents, didn’t speak out either. They were putting things into perspective and saying to themselves: ‘I have lived my life, what is my despair when compared to a young person condemned to perpetual unemployment or compared to a young man killed by the police, or to all those locked up in jail?’
But then we started to realise that part of the reason for the problems and misfortunes confronting us today lay in what could be called a bad start in life with people being poorly paid, despised, and rendered invisible … From the beginning, the parents were treated in a certain way and there was no reason for their offspring to be treated any differently.
How has the situation of Chibanis evolved? The film, Indigènes (i.e. Days of Glory) made an impact in France but has the situation of Chibanis improved over the last years?
The film Days of Glory took the issue of Chibanis, that hadn’t been debated before, into schools and wider society – which isn’t irrelevant. But Days of Glory is to the Chibanis’ history what the film Saving Private Ryan is to World War Two history: entertainment about a serious issue. So much the better if the film exists! But today we can state with certainty that nothing has changed for the elders: the issue was fashionable for a while but soon disappeared. A very simple example relates to the issue of the pension freeze for war veterans from immigrant backgrounds. For a long time it was claimed that, thanks to the movie, they had finally been granted parity in pensions. But it’s simply not the case and today many of those war veterans are in court trying to obtain what was promised to them at the time. The government tried to con us with their public pronouncements that ultimately didn’t lead to anything concrete.
It’s true that, thanks to the film, the debate has entered the public sphere and today nobody can say, ‘I didn’t know’. Many documentaries on the issue have been made but all too often they suffer from what I call the ‘Benguigui syndrome’. What I mean is that these films set out to be tearjerkers. We are not looking for compassion, we are looking for empathy. We accept old people as they are – some are nasty, others are nice – just like anyone else … The Benguigui syndrome transforms every elder into a loveable person on the basis that he or she has a strong foreign accent and lives in a 9-square-metre flat. In El Ghorba, we treat elders as they are, not looking for pity or compassion, but seeking the justice and dignity that has been denied them.
Could you remind us about the issue of immigrants’ pensions?
There are all kinds of problems that are, by the way, not unique to France. Recently, a British judge granted Nepalese war veterans, who fought in the British army, the right to live in the UK. This right had been withdrawn from those who had left the army before 1997. In France, the problems are of a similar nature where immigrant war veterans, who fought for France during and even before and after World War Two, were not granted the same war pensions as their French colleagues. A French war veteran can get from 600 to 1,000 euros per month while their Moroccan, Algerian or Senegalese counterparts only get four euros per month. In fact the latter are paid pensions at pre-1958 rates, as if time had stopped then.
In other cases, some people, who worked in France during most of their adult lives and were rewarded with very poor pensions, because they were badly paid, are forced to remain for at least six months in France in order to claim their state pension. They are prevented from living in their country of origin, while cheated out of a decent pension enabling them to live comfortably in France.
Returning to the subject of the banlieues, what are the main problems you are facing?
The same problems as those we are debating at the Forum: extremely dilapidated housing, the chaotic urbanism, one wonders how it was allowed to happen, excessive marginalisation … antiquated state schools merely churning out the future unemployed, future people with no degrees … it’s also the omnipresence of the oppressive police force. It’s a deeper and deeper insecurity that we are trying to fight against alongside the inhabitants of the banlieues themselves so that their interests are taken into account. It’s a completely forgotten and abandoned population and, although these problems are affecting immigrants and their children, other populations are also affected.
Any changes since Sarkozy came to power?
He’s made some public announcements, but to no effect. If anything, things are getting worse. When it comes to the banlieues anyway there is consensus in France among the mainstream left and right with no real difference between them. Besides, with the economic crisis, it has become even less of a priority … They find billions to save a few banks while the destitute are not their priority.
Read an IRR News story: Unity of purpose in the French banlieues
Read an IRR News story: Organising in the banlieues