Catherine Sanderson, author of Petite Anglaise, writes from Paris about her Belleville neighborhood on the cusp of the New Year.

January 1, 2008

Jours sombres à Belleville/Dark days in Belleville/Belleville rendez vous

I live in Belleville, a neighborhood northeast of the center of Paris, four kilometers as the crow flies from Nôtre Dame. Once upon a time, when Belleville was still a village outside the city limits, there were farms, vineyards and windmills on this hillside. Nowadays it’s a haphazard combination of old and new: charmless high-rise tenement blocks rub shoulders with century-old farmhouses.

One of the things I love most about my neighbourhood is its cultural diversity. Let me take you, for example, inside my four-year-old daughter, Tadpole’s, classroom. Dinah is Jewish. Lorène, Natalie, Jacques, Leo, Clarisse, and Hugo are Chinese (although, ironically, their names are the most traditionally French sounding of the bunch). Milan has a German father, Elimane’s parents are of Moroccan descent, and Rokia—whose mother wears a traditional batik print dress and headscarf—has beads in her braided hair which drive Tadpole wild with envy.

“Ni hao,” Tadpole calls out to Natalie when we pass her in the street. I’ve enrolled her in Mandarin lessons after school, and it’s one of the few phrases she’s mastered so far, along with a mysterious song, which I’m told is about a duck.

But when Tadpole returns to school after the holiday season, she may find empty chairs in her classroom, empty coat pegs in the hallway. And Natalie may be among the missing children, because, although she was born in France and has every right to live here and to attend Tadpole’s school, her parents are “sans papiers.” This is the catch-all term applied to asylum seekers and illegal immigrants—even to migrants who’ve arrived legally but haven’t quite managed to jump through the necessary administrative hoops. Although Natalie’s parents and others like them may have lived here for longer than I have, they could be rounded up and deported at any time. They’ll be grateful if they ring in the New Year without falling foul of a random ID check as they go about their daily business.

Throughout the chilly month of December, Belleville has been bathed in the light, not of Christmas decorations, but of convoys of police cars, as teams of uniformed policeman disappear inside buildings to carry out targeted searches. Earlier this year, the Ministre de l’Intérieur—a certain Mr. Sarkozy—set an ambitious deportation quota, vowing to send “home” no less than twenty-five thousand sans papiers before the year’s end. And as the police have fallen far short of this target—possibly because they have more important things to do than round up otherwise law-abiding civilians—activity has been stepped up noticeably in recent weeks. It’s a sinister race against the clock which has prompted comparisons with darker periods in France’s history.

Being British, a citizen of the EU, I require neither residence permit nor working papers in order to live and write in Paris. In the past I took this state of affairs for granted, but seeing Natalie’s parents dashing to school, head down, terrified of crossing the path of a zealous policeman, has given me pause.

2008, my thirteenth year in France, will be the year in which I bite the bullet and file an application for French nationality. Not because I fear for my future here in France. The procedure will be little more than a formality—albeit a torturously complex and time-consuming one. But after years of cheering and booing from the sidelines, the time is ripe to get involved: it’s time to make my vote count. For my neighbors’ sake.

Catherine Sanderson is the author of Petite Anglaise, coming June '08.

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