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Strasbourg: The Schizophrenic City

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SocietyEUtopia: StrasbourgEU-TOPIA: Time to Vote

The centre of Strasbourg is pretty and calm. The city hosts the European Parliament and exudes prosperity. But this facade conceals a darker side. Youth unemployment is sky high, drug problems have exploded, hundreds rely on a soup kitchen and many are forced to move away in search of a better life...

As the sun sets into the river Ill, the gothic tim­ber-framed build­ings that char­ac­ter­ize the UN­ESCO World Her­itage city cen­tre are re­flected in the tran­quil wa­ters. Young peo­ple cycle along the river bank. Many con­tinue to stroll the cob­ble-stoned paths or drink a beer in one of the many wel­com­ing bars around the cen­tre. Stras­bourg ap­pears as lively and en­er­getic at night as it does in the day. It is one of the cities with the youngest pop­u­la­tions in Eu­rope. Yet with youth un­em­ploy­ment reach­ing 23%, it still re­mains a vi­brant and mul­ti­cul­tural Eu­ro­pean cap­i­tal. It is al­most as if the thou­sands of young­sters that flood the city face no prob­lems. But is that re­ally true?

With a pop­u­la­tion of just 272, 000, Stras­bourg hosts one of the two European Parliaments, as well as the Eu­ro­pean Court of Human Rights and the Coun­cil of Eu­rope, with many other EU agen­cies hav­ing their head­quar­ters here too. Sit­u­ated at the cross­roads of Eu­rope, on the bor­der with Ger­many, its res­i­dents can often speak French, Ger­man and Eng­lish in­ter­change­ably, one of the few Eu­ro­pean cities that can boast flu­ent use of the three EU work­ing lan­guages. But do all the in­hab­i­tants feel so Eu­ro­pean?

Thomas Boullu works for SOS Aide aux Habi­tants, an or­ga­ni­za­tion which of­fers legal aid to young peo­ple who face prob­lems with mount­ing debt and/or crim­i­nal­ity. He says that those liv­ing in sub­urbs like Neuhof “don’t even know what the EU is”, let alone what op­por­tu­ni­ties it of­fers. A visit to Neuhof, half an hour south on the fu­tur­is­tic city tram re­veals how dif­fer­ent the sub­urbs are to the city cen­tre. The franco-gothic me­dieval charm Stras­bourg is famed for seems a world away. El­e­gant churches and shiny Eu­ro­pean in­sti­tu­tions give way to run down apart­ment blocks. A sense of un­cer­tainty hangs heavy in the air. The EU pres­tige of Stras­bourg is ev­i­dently not pre­sent be­yond the cen­tre.

Neuhof is one of Stras­bourg’s most trou­bled dis­tricts. With youth un­em­ploy­ment ris­ing, and no state aid for un­der-25s, the young are des­per­ate. Drug traf­fick­ing  be­comes wide­spread in such neigh­bour­hoods. 26 young peo­ple were ar­rested in Oc­to­ber 2012 for being in­volved in a vast drug traf­fick­ing net­work that had taken over the Neuhof sub­urb. “The court’s re­sponse was up to ten years in jail for some of these young­sters” says Boullu, not­ing that most of them were un­der-25s caught in pos­ses­sion of large amounts of drugs (heroin, cannabis, co­caine, etc). Some young­sters were sell­ing heroin from their scoot­ers. The court is “ag­gres­sive” in such cases, con­tin­ues Boullu, his voice con­vey­ing a sense of grav­ity.

“Such cases are very dif­fi­cult” says Boullu gloomily. The issue is how to over­come the sense of di­vi­sion and iso­la­tion that sep­a­rates such neigh­bour­hoods from other more pros­per­ous ones close to the cen­tre. “The dif­fi­cul­ties begin at age 15,” he ex­plains, “when young­sters de­cide they can­not or don’t want to con­tinue their stud­ies. They try to find an ap­pren­tice­ship, but if they don’t suc­ceed in that they are doomed”, and their life goes down­hill as they are mounted with debts, in­se­cu­rity and in­sta­bil­ity, lead­ing them into des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions.

Brigitte Lud­mann works for Réseau Ex­press Je­unes, an or­ga­ni­za­tion which helps young peo­ple to find jobs abroad in Ger­many. The Baden-Würt­tem­berg re­gion is only 45 km away and has youth un­em­ploy­ment of just 2.8%. She sighs as she ex­plains that the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by the youth today lead them to seek any kind of op­por­tu­nity, sim­ply to have some­thing to do. “At the be­gin­ning of the cri­sis we had to search for peo­ple, now we have to re­ject ap­pli­ca­tions”. The EU pro­grammes that offer young peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity for a short-term in­tern­ship with com­pa­nies abroad don’t nec­es­sar­ily lead to a per­ma­nent job. “But it is a first step for mo­bil­ity to other coun­tries, cul­tures and lan­guages, and greatly helps in mo­ti­vat­ing peo­ple and build­ing their self-es­teem”, says Lud­mann.

But Lud­mann says it is not so easy for young peo­ple to get up and leave. And it is not just the beauty of Stras­bourg that binds them. “It is the cul­tural bar­ri­ers that make it dif­fi­cult. The dif­fer­ent lan­guage. And the fact that money af­fects the per­cep­tion of what it means to be abroad.” With a sad­ness in her voice she adds that the young­sters in the coun­try­side are the ones who be­come more na­tion­al­is­tic and who be­lieve it would be bet­ter to be out­side the EU al­to­gether.

Just op­po­site one of the most dom­i­nant and ma­jes­tic build­ings in Stras­bourg, the Palais Rohan, there is some­thing you would never ex­pect. Lud­mann tells me to put away my pen and note­book as we enter the soup kitchen hosted by L’Étage – a 30-year old or­ga­ni­za­tion which helps young peo­ple who are un­em­ployed or home­less. 45 work­ers and 30 vol­un­teers pro­vide meals, as well as help­ing with ac­com­mo­da­tion for the 18-25 year-olds who have sud­denly found them­selves lost. Young­sters re­ceive a plate of warm food with a mix­ture of re­lief and de­spair in their eyes. You can’t tell if it is the hunger or the shame that causes them to con­cen­trate so in­tently on the food be­fore them, but all the while they still offer a kind smile to the per­son sit­ting next to them. De­spite the chal­lenges they face they seem to re­main im­pres­sively calm and in good spir­its.

“You are al­ways sur­prised by what you see here,” says Lud­mann as she greets the vol­un­teers. “It is not just the un­skilled that are here, it is also the ed­u­cated ones that reach such con­di­tions with­out know­ing why.” The or­ga­ni­za­tion helped 40 young peo­ple when it first began, but now it sup­ports 600-1000 peo­ple.

As I walk along the river bank gaz­ing at the swans glid­ing across the water and guided by the ever-pre­sent Cathe­dral pro­trud­ing above the re­mark­able build­ings, tak­ing care not to be run over by one of the hun­dreds of bikes that roam the cen­tre, it be­comes so ob­vi­ous why young­sters choose to stay in Stras­bourg. Now if only the MEPs gath­er­ing in their im­pos­ing build­ing just a few miles away could even­tu­ally vote on a di­rec­tive to cre­ate jobs rather than sim­ply forc­ing the youth to leave their homes in search of some­thing  bet­ter else­where.