A new lease on life
French Red Cross urban renewal programme
by Pierre Kremer
As unemployment, violence and poverty take a heavy toll on the
people living in urban districts in France, the French Red
Cross has launched a programme to begin addressing the complex
problems of the "banlieue".
Cars set ablaze, school racketeering, clashes between rival
gangs, insecurity: the French suburbs instil fear, a fear
that both repels and fascinates. More importantly, these urban
and suburban districts bear witness to a more muted, more
profound reality: precariousness, isolation and lack of opportunities,
creating a fertile ground for violence, whether it be turned
against others or oneself (drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide,
The French Red Cross has always been present in these districts,
carrying out its more traditional activities there, such as
emergency assistance, health promotion in schools or home
care. But it lacked a practical methodology and framework
for action to address the underlying social problems of the
suburbs. Discussions, debates, and reflection papers on what
to do emerged but few convincing solutions were found.
From the time he took up his post as president of the French Red Cross
in 1997, Marc Gentilini made clear his intention of getting
the National Society more involved in under-privileged urban
districts. A plan of action was adopted the following year
and a programme officially launched on 4 January 1999. Forty-eight
young men and women originating from deprived areas were recruited.
They were to become 'urban moderators'. Their mission? To
develop new Red Cross services in four designated pilot zones:
Marseilles (Rhône delta region), Lille (North), Meaux (Paris
region) and Blanc-Mesnil (Paris region).
The urban moderators underwent a three-month specialized training
course, divided into three stages: first, a one-month course
on Red Cross values and principles, first aid and project
implementation; second, two months of work experience; and
lastly, a short session to review progress. Armed with a French
Red Cross diploma attesting to their status of 'moderator',
the young people took up their responsibilities in May 1999.
The road to social integration
"We wanted to show people that the image of the French suburbs was
wrong. There are many people working with us who have the
energy and drive to make things happen," explained Lionel
Vallet, an urban moderator and coordinator of a programme
in Paris. Lionel along with several others opened a 'Prevention
Boutique'. The boutique offers young people access to the
Internet in exchange for helping with community services.
"Young people can come here like in a cybercafe. We give
them an e-mail address and in exchange they help us with our
social programmes," explains Lionel.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, outside Paris, other projects rapidly
took hold. Last summer, moderators took part in an operation
called 'Town, life, holidays'. This project offered 550 introductory
first-aid courses to children unable to go away on holiday.
The first-aid venture acted as a springboard for other activities
such as violence prevention projects and health education
seminars on AIDS and hepatitis and drug abuse.
In Marseilles, the urban moderators worked in three of the
city's social centres. One of these was the Saint-Mauront
Bellevue social centre, located in the city's poorest district.
There, the moderators provided family mediation services and
conducted introductory first-aid courses for the students
of a local school. The headmaster expressed his appreciation
of the moderators' presence, and other nearby schools have
requested similar courses.
An ambitious plan was devised in several run-down districts
on the outskirts of Lille: Episoïl, Wazemmes and Moulins.
Three Red Cross outlets - two to dispense food aid and one
to distribute clothing - were opened offering assistance to
some of the most vulnerable in the community. This programme
enabled moderators to forge ties with many people marginalized
by poverty or discrimination. Plans are now being made to
expand the programme and establish neighbourhood social services,
in partnership with other associations, providing literacy
programmes, help with school work, and child welfare assistance.
Lastly, in Meaux, emphasis was placed first on sports, but
later reoriented towards activities based on team spirit and
social interaction. One such case was the Chorba for all
project: during Ramadan the urban moderators invited local
residents to eat their evening meal together in a warm and
friendly atmosphere, enlivened by entertainment. Here again
the idea was to build trust before embarking on more specific
activities of prevention and support.
Building community relations
A year after the urban moderator programme was launched several lessons
have been learned. A vital lesson is that first-aid courses
are an appropriate way to begin establishing links with all
sectors of the community. They tend to reduce tension between
people and bring them together to particpate in a shared activity.
That's why since October 1999, as part of the campaign against
violence, the moderators in Seine-Saint-Denis are instructing
young offenders in Villepinte prison in first aid.
The second lesson is that activities that appeal to young
people - sports, games or solidarity exercises - are effective
ways of building trust and of creating a positive dynamic
among local residents. With this in mind, the Seine-Saint-Denis
urban moderators launched a project entitled 'Si t'es Foot'
('If you love football'), an inter-community football tournament.
The tournament was designed to bring young people together,
teach them about 'fair play' and offer lessons in basic first
Lastly, the credibility of the Red Cross and Red Crescent
emblems and the respect they inspire among young - and not
so young - people in these deprived areas must be highlighted.
Well-known and accepted by everyone in the banlieue, the emblem
has a reassuring effect on the inhabitants, who think nothing
of going to Red Cross outlets for any number of reasons: to
ask for help or information or simply to talk.
In one year, the urban moderator programme has opened the
way to other initiatives. The four pioneering teams, overseen
by skilled supervisors, are still working. The projects they
initiated have already demonstrated their worth, as shown
by the confidence they have gained from the public authorities.
With so much success, new programmes are planned for this
summer in other locations.
The French Red Cross, through the urban moderator programme,
has been able to help communities in France that other people
prefer to ignore or isolate. By tackling the problem of violence
and exclusion, it has built up confidence and trust between
young people and initiated a dialogue between neighbours.
It has also achieved its ultimate goal of breathing new life
into these deprived areas.
Pierre Kremer is editor at the French Red Cross
headquarters in Paris.
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