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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK
France in shock over gang rape
By Rosie Goldsmith
Watching the film La Squale (which translates as "the squaw" or "the girl tearaway") was a test both for my nerves and my French. The 14, 15 and 16 year-old-teenagers watching it with me hardly bat an eyelid: they had seen and heard it all before.
It is set in a housing estate in the suburb of Sarcelles, France's very first "new town" on the outskirts of Paris. This is where the teenagers live; this film was about their lives.
It's difficult to see how many they are - their hideaway is dark. Maybe eight. Leila is screaming and the boys shout unrepeatable insults. The deed is done.
The boys have proven they are worthy of gang membership: the rape was a rite of passage. Then the film cuts to the school playground where the boys are boasting of their conquest and eyeing up the next one.
Leila is now a "petasse" in their eyes - a whore. She dare not tell the police because she fears reprisals; she and her family are forced to move away from Sarcelles for ever. And so the relentless violence and abuse continue.
Low police presence
"La Squale" is not a home movie made with a shaky hand-held video. It is a professional film on national release and it has shocked the nation. This is the France that the majority of French people do not see but it is a reality for the millions of immigrant and poor white families who inhabit the suburbs of big cities, known as the "banlieue".
Sarcelles is one of 20 banlieues around Paris. A huge, soulless cluster of tower blocks only a 15-minute train journey from the centre of that glorious, grand capital city. These "satellites" were built mostly in the post-war period - originally for France's "guest workers" from the colonies and for its working class white population.
Nowadays this is generally condemned as a deliberate policy of segregation on the part of the French Government. Only today is the government having to face the consequences of its failure.
Jeanne Sillam is the headmistress of one of the most difficult schools in France. It was here that I watched "La Squale" with her pupils. It was this school which "inspired" the film. But to meet Madame Sillam is a shock. Her pupils may be dressed in sweatshirts and trainers but she is small, blond, quietly spoken and exquisitely dressed; her home town is not Sarcelles but Cannes on the French Riviera which is where she will retire soon. When her job is done.
Breaking the silence
It is the Law of Silence that all uphold - the victims, the perpetrators, the families and the police. Everyone is afraid of reprisals - just like Leila in the film. But Jeanne Sillam found a director and financing for the film - some of the actors are even from the school - and she has been acclaimed as a result.
A bleak landscape
With the help of two of Madame Sillam's students I was determined to find out. It was a matter of winning trust. On my third day there young Ludovic agreed to show me around. We met on his estate - groups of giant, identikit high-rises with a playground - more like a wasteland - breaking up the monotony.
A few kids hang around on street corners listening to rap, bored, staring. Ludovic took me to see one notorious building where he knew gang rapes took place - in the cellar. "Not in the stairwell," he said, "because that would make too much noise."
He showed me walls covered in offensive graffiti and swastikas; the windows had bullet holes. "A guy was killed just outside this towerblock" he told me. "He was thrown into a dustbin and no one did anything about it. And the police never come here."
Victims fear identification
Adjiatou had also been one of the female leads in the film "La Squale". There was no one closer to the story. I met her on Day Four. The film, she told me, had been utterly realistic.
"Two of my friends," she explained, "have been gang-raped. One Turkish girl and one white French girl. The boys jumped on them, one after another. In five minutes it was over but those five minutes have ruined their lives. I am afraid most of the time that it could happen to me."
Would her friends talk to me? I wondered. "They don't want to. They haven't even been able to tell their own parents... or the police or journalists."
Adjiatou and Ludovic are brave in talking to me. They want to improve their lives: Adjiatou wants to do more acting; Ludovic wants to be a rap star. There are growing numbers of brave people in the suburbs who have simply had enough.
A couple of cases of gang rape are now making it to court but the girls are protected by a whole army of lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers. They never appear in public. After seeing the film "La Squale" and hearing the stories of these girls, the Education Minister, Jack Lang, admitted to being "profoundly shocked".
Toward a solution
My week in Paris happened to coincide with the first ever national conference on youth violence in French schools, organised by Jack Lang. I managed to grab him for a few words at the end. The problem of violence in the Banlieue, he said, is urgent.
"There are many initiatives in the country to fight it - more teachers, more social workers, better information of parents and children - the pupils have to be engaged to make this work," he said.
How serious is sexual violence, I asked? "It's a real problem. I will receive before the end of the year proposals about this question. We will also engage a campaign against sexual violence - it's very important."
The silence of the lost generation has been broken.
Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: we look at the latest craze - the Psychology Cafe - and speak to some of the few remaining accordionists who perform traditional French music.
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