2001: France in shock over gang rape

26 July, 2001 BBC

Watching the film La Squale (which translates as "the squaw" or "the girl tearaway") was a test both for my nerves and my French ... 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.

La Squale starts with an horrific gang rape of a young girl called Leila. The boys are all school age and they take it in turns to rape her.

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.

Gang membership

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

For too many of these teenagers theirs is a lost generation - lost to crime, drugs, unemployment. Their parents have little influence on their lives - many families have broken up - and police presence in violent city suburbs like Sarcelles is low.

"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".

Suburban segregation

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.