A team of social workers tasked with preventing public disorder in the Paris suburb of Malakoff did the rounds ahead of Bastille Day after weeks of rioting. On a sunny weekend evening, the modus operandi of engaging with the community appeared to have worked.
Children wandered around with glitter on their cheeks, waving balloons while French pop singer Corine performed for dozens of onlookers.
Despite fears of the riots that have gripped France in recent weeks, the festivities in the southwest Paris suburb of Malakoff went off without a hitch on Thursday. While a large police force was present, filtering access to the square where the festivities were taking place, five social workers kept a watchful eye on the crowd throughout the evening.
The mission of the five men wearing purple T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Médiation” is two-fold. Their main objective is to try to prevent conflicts and defuse public disturbances through dialogue. They also work to create links with local residents. “It’s a job that really makes you feel useful,” said a smiling Samba Baye. “We can help homeless people improve their lot, raise young people’s awareness of certain issues or try to calm things down when a situation gets out of hand. And sometimes, like tonight, we’re there just in case we’re needed.”
Baye was one of the first social workers in Malakoff when the scheme was established in 2020. Today, there are five of them working five days a week throughout the town’s neighbourhoods. They are all employed by Promévil, an association specialised in social work operating in partnership with the municipality and state public housing departments.
‘So what do you think of the evening?’
Early Thursday evening, before the 11pm fireworks, Baye and his colleagues strolled among the crowd. Some people greeted them with a smile and a “good evening”, while others shook their hands and chatted with them for a bit.
Suddenly, Baba, another social worker, slipped away and headed towards a group of homeless men sitting on benches.
The homeless men smiled broadly when they saw Baba approach. They chatted for a bit, then Baba took a few steps back as the situation seemed calm. “We know them well. They often wander around the square and unfortunately, they drink a lot. I tried to explain to them that tonight they had to be more careful because it was a special evening,” said Baba.
A few metres away, just behind the security cordon set up by the municipal police, a group of teenagers burst out laughing. This time Karim, who has been a social worker for 10 years, started the conversation. “So what do you think of the evening?” he asked them. One of them replied, “It’s cool, it sets the mood”, before exclaiming and pointing to the roof of the building behind him: “But I want to see the fireworks from up there!”
Karim quickly shot down the idea, noting that climbing on a building is not only illegal but also very dangerous. The teenager eventually agreed with him and abandoned the hair-brained idea. The conversation then continued, with jokes and references to Mansour Barnaoui, a young man from Malakoff who is now a mixed martial arts champion and an idol for the local teenagers.
The conversation turned towards the riots of recent weeks following last month’s police shooting of Nahel, a teenager of Algerian origin, in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. The local kids pulled out their phones to show images that have clearly left an impression. One of them said that he had taken part in the violence, while another admitted, with a disappointed look, that he had been forced to stay home. But they all came to the same conclusion: “We identify with Nahel, it was unfair what happened to him!”
“They’re good kids, they listen,” said Karim. He added that this was the result of three years spent building relationships with them.
‘To advise, not order, and to build bridges’
Before the festivities began, Karim, Baye and Baba were convinced that the evening would be calm. But by the afternoon, there was palpable anxiety in the town.
The team began its usual rounds in Malakoff’s streets around 4:30pm. They checked every nook and cranny for damage and took photos of illegal rubbish dumps for about two hours.
Karim, Baye and Baba also stopped regularly to chat with passers-by, and at each building they said “hello” to the caretaker, listening to comments and complaints.
On their list, they noted one or two broken doors and a few neighbourhood concerns. However, one question kept coming up: “So, is it going to be a busy evening?”
Malakoff was left relatively untouched by the rioting that followed Nahel’s death. “A few cars and bins were burned and a shop was vandalised,” said Baye. He attributed this “good record” partly to the efforts of social workers on the ground.
“We spoke to these young people during the riots. They were able to express their feelings of injustice and anger,” he said. “From our end, we were able to raise their awareness and explain to them that not only was violence not the answer, but that they risked a lot if they took part in the vandalism. Several young people told us that they understood and that they were going to try to talk about it with their friends.”
Baye also noted that, “We’re the people to turn to for everyday problems. There is a lack of public services here in the evenings. The town hall closes at 5pm and after that, there’s nothing. The social workers help maintain the social bond all the time.”
This is especially important, added Baba, “as relations between the police and the public are not at their best these days”.
Baba said their job was “to advise, not order, and to build bridges. And this is now more useful than ever.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many local residents, who often voiced their gratitude to the team with a simple, but heartfelt, “thank goodness you’re here.”