Back to Magazine

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, etc).

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.

Suburban professionals 

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 aid.

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
Pierre Kremer is editor at the French Red Cross headquarters in Paris.

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Current issue | Webmaster

© 2000 | Copyright