In the often tough multi-ethnic neighborhoods on the periphery of French cities, the Catholic youth organizations offer a way out.
SAINT-DENIS — Scouts riding bikes in Saint-Denis, the gritty northern outskirts of Paris? Well, it offers some particular charms. The French Scouts wear fluorescent jackets over their formal blue shirts to avoid accidents, cross commercial and industrial areas, and hoist their bikes over their shoulders to get onto the crowded RER regional trains.
But when the 22 teenagers who left Saint-Denis at 7 a.m. finally arrive in Ermenonville Forest, they can enjoy the classic pleasures of French Scouts: pitching a tent in the rain, inventing improbable pizza recipes over a camp fire, and scaring each other during the night.
“And eat tons of candy at night in the tent,” says Emeric.
The 12-year-old is soaked and frozen but overjoyed after his first day with the scouts. He heard about them (and the candies) from his friend Idriss, who has been a scout for a year. Idriss invited Emeric to join him for three days at this mini camp for kids from La Courneuve and Saint-Denis. There, a group of French Scouts and guides created four years ago hosts 35 kids from 8 to 14 years old.
The Catholic Scout movement has been established for a decade in about 50 low-income urban areas of France — all over the Ile-de-France region around Paris, as well as in other French cities such as Lille, Bordeaux, Nantes, Montpellier or Toulouse. The inexpensive activity provides some much-needed structure for the children and covers topics and other important information and development that school doesn’t really offer. The French Scouts directors feel there is a particular balance between their own philosophy and the parents’ expectations.
It began with giant summer camps that were financed by the government to create activities for young people. Then, the scouts offered to organize games twice a month and to take the regular children camping for a couple of days. Since then, the movement has continued to grow.
“Roll in the mud”
“We do what we can’t do at home, like rolling in the mud,” 12-year-old Yawen says on his bike. “Then my parents ask ‘what did you do?’ and I answer ‘I was with the scouts,’” he adds. Joy is the same age and talks like a regular. “I like it,” she says. “We don’t know where the other lives, and we get to know each other. We can see how it is elsewhere because I’m sure it’s better than in my neighborhood.”
The camps gather children coming from working-class areas and those from the city centers. Antoine Dulin, national representative of the French Scouts and guides, says it aims to offer a “social diversity that has become rare in our society.”
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French scouts uniform — Photo: Hastings II/GFDL
This “dynamic diversity” has also offered a refreshing image to a scouting movement that was created in England in 1907. “The clichés are still there,” Dulin says. “Some think we’re a paramilitary organization that tries to convert children to our religion. Yes, our movement is Catholic, but it is open to everyone, and we see that this method works for these young people. It opens new horizons and creates oppportunities for them.”
Idriss’ mother Céline Loques says that being a scout “changed” her son, that he has become more independent and more crafty. “It’s good for him to be outside, without a mobile phone or video games,“ she says. “I live alone with him. Now he can meet other children and learn to be tolerant. And rules. At school, these aren’t always well defined, and there are a lot of fights.”
This social, ethnic and religious dialogue has forced the movement created by Lord Robert Baden-Powell to adapt itself. For instance, in Montpellier, a scouting movement was recently launched to gather French and Muslim scouts together.
Four Muslim families have enrolled their children in the Saint-Denis scout group, and they are aware their child may hear about Jesus there. But according to group leader Arnaud Poincelet, they also know that “we will be listening, with respect to the Muslim tradition.” Plus, there will be no pork served during meals, and masses have been replaced with time devoted to debates about the environment, friendship and sharing.
The annual subscription prices ($27-$167) and the cost of the trips ($41-$69 for three days) vary according to family income. Sleeping bags, dishes, bikes, and even change can be loaned to the children, and the scarfs are free.
“They feel useful”
In the Neuhof suburb of Strasbourg, two Muslim fathers started a French Scouts group three months ago. They described the association to other parents as “tied with the Church but open to diversity.”
One of the fathers is a caseworker and the other, Karim Amejrar, works as a computer engineer. He describes himself as a Muslim with “republican” principles. “Our young people don’t lack for activities, but they’re not exposed to values like those of the scouts, which make them feel like real citizens. School can’t be the only institution responsible for such a heavy mission.”
The Neuhof area, which is notorious for the burning of cars on New Years Eve, is changing for the better, Amejrar says, in part because of the scouts. “The children are removed from their daily life of consumption,” he says. “Here, they feel useful. We don’t talk about money, we learn to live in a different way, without waste, by sharing in a mini society where we live in harmony.”
The two fathers are even considering a tour of all the city’s suburbs as a way to praise the benefits of the scouting movement.