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The dark side of the French suburbs

By Zubeida Malik
Today programme

The French suburbs, or "banlieues"

How living in the suburbs around Paris can be potentially dangerous for young women. Some of the names in this report have been changed and you may find some details upsetting.

Jean-Paul sits in his front room surrounded by family photos and talks about the day his daughter was raped.

His eyes well up, but he does not cry.

Two years ago his 13-year-old daughter was taken to a block of flats where in the cellar she was raped by a gang of 15 boys for two hours. She did not tell anyone for two weeks, but then broke down and told her older sister.

He says: ''In the beginning she cloistered herself away, she tried to commit suicide, she wanted to hang herself in my apartment and tried to throw herself in front of a train... it was hell on earth for us.''

His daughter is now slowly recovering. ''She is feeling a little better now, but she has changed a lot," he says.

"I get the impression she still feels dirty. When I go to the supermarket with her and we meet a group of boys she is afraid and clams up."

Hocine Ben
Rapper and poet Hocine Ben

When he went to report the attack to the police, he was surprised to hear it had happened before.

"The police told me this wasn't the first time a young girl was raped in that housing estate. There have been several other rape cases there, but people are afraid and no-one talks about it."

The suburbs are called the ''banlieues'' in France, and are the housing estates around the capital.

20-year-old Shenice lives with her family on one of the housing estates. She says she has never heard of anyone being gang raped, and that the boys on the estate are very protective.

''The young men are always controlling us," she says. "They want to know where we are going and think they are our older brothers. We know that we can count on them if there is a problem. They are always there to defend us.''

Many ordinary people living in the housing estates are having to deal with the national spotlight being on them again, after a recent court case of a gang rape in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-sous-Bois.

Over the years the housing estates have had to deal with a negative image of gangs and crime. But people living there say that it's not all bad and that there is a real sense of community.

'Parallel world'

Hocine Ben is famous in Paris as a slammer - a poet who raps. Born in the banlieues, he still lives on the same housing estate where he was born.

''It's the best thing for everyone to grow up in the suburbs, because there are a lot of different people," he says.

He blames the media for giving the banlieues a bad reputation - and says that the problems of poverty, unemployment, poor public transport get ignored.

''The politicians always need someone or some group to blame. We are not a problem, we are people. Some are students, some are working, some are parents and we all think the same as people from Paris, we just want to live.'

"When we hear about gang rapes we are shocked like all people. One is one too much."

The minority who disrespect women, Hocine Ben says, "disrespect everyone - women, men and older people".

''I don't say that this is all a pretty village, that there are no problems - there are a lot of problems but you come can come here and live here and love this town, love the suburbs, because there are a lot of postive things here."

Anne Godard is president of Femmes Solidaires in Fontenay-sous-Bois - an organisation that campaigns for women's rights.

Chief Inspector Christophe Crepin
Chief Inspector Christophe Crepin

''Gang rape happens everywhere, not only in the suburbs but also in very posh areas of Paris. I have heard of cases where the parents of rich people leave for the weekend. Their daughter invites her boyfriend who brings one or two friends and they gang rape her."

Walking around the estates, I did not see any ''bobby on the beat'' or any patrol cars driving around, and locals say they don't see the police until there is trouble.

But Chief Inspector Christophe Crepin denies this.

"The police are trying to conquer the territory back, but it is very difficult," he says.

"The gangs' parallel world is very well structured. They have people keeping watch and some of their members don't hesitate to shoot at the police. But we won't let the banlieues go down the tubes.''

''The police understand young people from the banlieues very well and respect them. But we will not let the gangs control the banlieues. We, the state police, will not let young people get away with something like this.''

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