Exploring Paris' alleged 'no-go zones'

Entrance of the Villa Faucheur in Belleville , in the 20th arrondissement - one of the circled areas on Fox's map. Inquirer staff writer Michael Matza toured Belleville accompanied by former colleagues and guided by Rick Smith, an International Herald Tribune veteran editor who lives there. LPLT
Entrance of the Villa Faucheur in Belleville , in the 20th arrondissement - one of the circled areas on Fox's map. Inquirer staff writer Michael Matza toured Belleville accompanied by former colleagues and guided by Rick Smith, an International Herald Tribune veteran editor who lives there. LPLT
Posted: August 24, 2015

PARIS - Are the "no-go zones" of Paris just urban legends? Or are they real, lawless enclaves in this City of Light?

The no-go label sparked controversy in January when a Fox News guest analyst, speaking against the backdrop of a map overlaid with red circles, told viewers there were eight parts of Greater Paris where even the police dared not go.

"I've been to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kashmir," said Nolan Peterson, a U.S. Air Force combat veteran. "At times, [Paris] felt like those places."

Really?

On a July visit to this capital, where I have spent much time over 30 years and know the neighborhoods, I was determined to have a fresh look.

A friend arranged an independent tour of Belleville, in the 20th arrondissement - one of the circled areas on Fox's map. Some pundits had flagged Belleville and the other "zones" as mini-caliphates-in-the-making after the Charlie Hebdo massacre by Islamic extremists in January.

Raring to go no-go, I was accompanied by a dozen colleagues from a bygone journalism fellowship and guided by Rick Smith, an International Herald Tribune veteran editor who lives in Belleville.

He met us at Le Mistral, a convivial cafe in this neighborhood where Armenians, Greeks, and Eastern European Jews once predominated, and now Africans, Chinese, and other Asians are in the mix.

After lunch - saucisse d'Auvergne, ratatouille, and rosé for me - Smith led us on a hike around his supposedly off-limits district. Apart from a few walls splashed with graffiti, it could not have seemed tamer.

Our loop took us past 72 rue de Belleville, where a plaque commemorates the birth of famed singer Edith Piaf, and to rue de Menilmontant, where the Oscar-winning short The Red Balloon was filmed in 1956. We ascended a narrow street where supporters of the Paris Commune manned barricades in 1871. We paused at the Parc de Belleville, which affords a panoramic view of the city's skyline. It is a modernist, poured-concrete counterpoint to the classical gardens of Luxembourg and Trocadero in the heart of town.

Had Smith not been our guide, there were other ways to go no-go.

A month after the murders at Charlie Hebdo reanimated the debate about neighborhoods rumored to incubate jihad, Mediatrium, a French communications firm with a flair for parody, encouraged tourists to "discover the dangerous Paris" using volunteer guides and online introductions.

The free service launched in February with a website, nogozones.net. As of this writing, it had about 60 registered users.

"The concept is fun and can help us fight media manipulation," a French woman who goes by the username Zozo wrote in her profile.

"Crowd-sourced tourism," Agence France Presse wrote recently, "is coming to the rescue of the French capital's reputation."

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo rode to the rescue, too. Incensed by what she called "information that is untrue" in some Fox reports, she threatened to sue the network. In response to questions from The Inquirer, her spokesman Matthieu Lamarre released a six-page document outlining the city's cause for civil action.

Extending the no-go notion to England has drawn fire from the U.K., too.

In one Fox report, security analyst Steve Emerson described Birmingham (Muslim population about 22 percent) as "totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said, "I choked on my porridge" upon hearing the claim, and added, "This guy's clearly a complete idiot."

Emerson apologized and Fox News issued corrections for certain no-go-zone statements made on Fox & Friends and Justice With Judge Jeanine.

While Cameron choked and Hidalgo fumed, some Parisians saw an opening for sarcastic fun.

The website Paris by Mouth (parisbymouth.com) posted a list of top bars, restaurants, and bakeries in the no-go zones, including a former winner for best baguette.

In addition to Belleville, the other "zones" are the Goutte d'Or, an African immigrant district in the 18th arrondissement; Magenta, near the Gare du Nord train station in the 10th; the area around Pere Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th; and several areas around the "doors to Paris," where the Peripherique highway meets the inner-ring suburbs. Those suburbs and other parts of France had severe riots after Muslim youth and police clashed in 2005.

"The problem of no-go-zones is well-documented, but multiculturalists and their politically correct supporters vehemently deny they exist," writes Soeren Kern of the Gatestone Institute, a foreign policy nonprofit that bills itself as "educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report."

Is it true that certain parts of greater Paris have had problems between longtime residents and a growing population of immigrants, many of them Muslim?

Certainly.

But branding those areas no-go zones seems a misreading of the reality.

"Like many political myths, there's a partial basis in fact that's become exaggerated," the Atlantic observed in January in "Why the Muslim 'No-Go-Zone' Myth Won't Die."

Since 1996, France has maintained a list of 750 socioeconomically "sensitive" neighborhoods, Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or ZUS. Many are populated by immigrants and are prone to high unemployment, poverty, and social ills.

But "far from being considered 'off limits' to authorities," Bloomberg Businessweek observed in January, "they've been designated as priority areas for urban renewal and other forms of state aid."

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia nonprofit that describes its mission as protecting Western values and defeating radical Islam, was among the first to describe the ZUS as no-go zones, which he did in a 2006 blog.

Seven years later, after visiting parts of Paris and five other cities in Europe, he revised his thinking.

"We who know the Bronx and Detroit expect urban hell," he wrote in 2013, but "things look fine . . . hardly beautiful [but] order prevails. Having this firsthand experience, I regret having called these areas no-go zones."

In a recent interview, Pipes said he still grapples with what to call Europe's enclaves of disaffected immigrant youth.

Writing for medium.com, Parisian Sened Dhab chronicled a recent visit to the area around Porte Saint-Denis, which Fox had on its map.

Citing the area's cosmopolitan array of Turkish soup parlors, kebab spots, Indian restaurants, bars, and shops, including one of the city's most ancient wine sellers, he wrote: "Doesn't sound much like downtown Mosul, does it?"


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541

@MichaelMatza1

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