In France, Catholic Scout Movement Breaks Into Inner City

In the often tough multi-ethnic neighborhoods on the periphery of French cities, the Catholic youth organizations offer a way out.

In Saint-Denis
In Saint-Denis
Pascale Krémer

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.”

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.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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