Les Années banlieues - Dossier 1996
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Les Années banlieues

Jeunes des «4.000» à la Courneuve


    Since the late 1970s a `new problem' emerged in French political debates: the problem of les banlieues (the suburbs). Since then les banlieues have become, in popular opinion, in the media and amongst France's political élites, a demonized space of social fragmentation, racial conflict, (sub)urban decay, criminality and violence. Some French sociologists have even termed a phrase - "stigmates territoriaux" (Bachmann & Basier: 1989 p.45) - to describe the stigmatisation of many of France's banlieues.

    As the comments made above suggest, the English word suburb conveys little of the meanings of the French word banlieue. The word suburb in an British or North American context evokes leafy streets of Tudorbethan semi-detached houses with neatly clipped lawns and shining Volvos in every drive.

    The French word banlieue on the other hand evokes an entirely different set of connotations - drugs, crime, delinquency, civil disorder, Islamic fundamentalism and even terrorism. Les banlieues are not full of comfortable houses for an affluent middle class, but are composed, rather, of large high-rise blocks full of the very poorest of France's population. If there is one term that is particularly used to describe the inhabitants of les banlieues it is les exclus, that is to say those excluded from playing an active role in and enjoying the fruits of the affluent society.

    The `problem' of les banlieues became particularly prominent from the early 1980s onwards, and in particular, during the étés chauds of 1990 and 1991, when violent confrontations (émeutes, affrontements) between suburban youths and the police took place in a number of the banlieues surrounding France's major cities like, for example, Sartrouville and La Corneuve near Paris and Vaulx-en-Velin and Vénissieux near Lyon. At the time of writing these notes (January 1998) riots were taking place in the suburbs of Strasbourg - even winters can be `hot' in les banlieues. Revising the notes in January 1999, we can see that riots and related acts of violence against cars, phone boxes and bus shelters appear to have become a feature of the `festivities' of New Year's Eve in the suburbs of Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Nantes and Bordeaux.

    Les banlieues became the main theme of thousands of newspaper and magasine articles with dramatic titles evoking the impending social meltdown (e.g. La poudrière des banlieues, Elle monte, elle monte, la fièvre en banlieue, Banlieue damnée and Banlieue explosive) or else drawing comparison with American inner-city ghettos and their racial violence (e.g. Banlieue-ghetto, Le Bronx à Paris). It is interesting to note that the narrative tension in Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995) is generated by a similar sense of impending catastrophe. A young Beur lies in a coma and a policeman's handgun is on the loose: an accident waiting to happen, a time bomb ticking away in the background.

    There is a scene in Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine which neatly illustrates the dangerous and stigmatized status of les banlieues and their inhabitants:

    13. Cité ... est. jour

    La Journaliste: Bonjour, c'est la télé, on peut vous parler? Vous êtes au courant de l'arme du policier qui circule dans la cité? Vous savez qui l'a trouvée? Et vous-même qu'est ce que vous feriez avec?

    Saïd: On ressemble à des voyous pour vous?

    La Journaliste: Je ne voulais pas dire ça ...

    Hubert: (sincère) Pourquoi vous ne descendez pas de la voiture? On est pas à Thoiry ici.

    La Journaliste: Parce qu ... parce qu'on est en retard, on a beaucoup de boulot. Vinz se met à insulter la journaliste.

    Vinz: Vous avez du boulot? Comme quoi? Foutre la merde, chercher un truc bien baveux pour faire un scoop? Pour qui tu te prends de venir chez moi et de la péter comme un enculé? Dégage de mon quartier avant qu'on vous crame, bande de bâtards. On est pas à Thoiry!

    Vinz fais un pas en avant, le chauffeur de la voiture ne s'attend pas.

    Saïd: Qu'est ce qu'ils ont tous aujourd'hui!
    Ils s'éloignent.

    Vinz: (à Hubert) C'est quoi Thoiry?

    Hubert: C'est un zoo qu'on traverse en voiture.

    This is a very succinct image of the banlieue as safari park, a place where middle-class professionals, like the reporters and the camera crew represented in La Haine, dare not enter for fear of their lives. The scene is also a nice illustration of the lurid attraction les banlieues have to metropolitan journalists.

    But how far is such a representation of les banlieues justified? To answer this we need to consider a number of other questions: why were les banlieues created in the first place? what were thay like when they were first built? what went wrong? are fears of the banlieue-ghetto justified? what anxieties do these fears about les banlieues actually reveal?

    A Brief History of the French Suburbs

    Let's start to explore some of these questions by looking at the historical development of les banlieues in France.


    The word banlieue dates back to the Middle Ages and comes from two words: the Germanic word bann (authority) and the Latin word leuca (league - approx 4km). The banlieue was originally an area of around one league outside the fortified wall of a city and which was subject that city's legal jurisdiction. Initially, these early banlieues were the locations for certain kinds of activities - agricultural, industrial and commercial - that were essential to the economic life of the town or city on whose outskirts they were situated. The early banlieues also played a role in the military defence of the city they encircled. By the early seventeenth century the les banlieues were no longer subject to the legal authority of the main city and the term was simply used to designate those suburban developments enjoying population growth. It's important to note that there were many aristocratic banlieues (e.g. Versailles, Sceaux, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Saint-Cloud) which emerged at the end of the seventeenth century and which remain prestigious districts today.

    The Nineteenth Century

    The banlieues really began to grow in the nineteenth century and this rapid growth was directly related to their earlier role, that is to say, as sites for certain the agricultural, industrial and commercial activities central to the economic life of the city. With France's developing industrialisation and the increasing economic importance of major cities like Paris, Lyon, Lille and so on, les banlieues too began to grow, expanding in rythmn with the cities they surrounded.

    A development central to the expansion of les banlieues was the migration of large numbers of Frenchmen and women from rural to urban. Important changes in transport infrastructure (e.g. the construction of the railways) as well as cultural factors (e.g. the increased provision of primary education, introduction of military service) opened new horizons for many young men and women who would have otherwise spent their lives in the field and the farmhouse.

    Moreover, urban developments like Haussmanization, the modernization of Paris under the reign of Napoléon III, accelerated the growth of les banlieues parisiennes by uprooting working- class communities in the city centre forcing them outwards to the eastern arrondissements or to les banlieues. Already, in the nineteeth century the idea of the banlieues and of a predominantly working-class population are closely linked.

    The Early Twentieth Century

    The growth of les banlieues in the early twentieth century went hand in hand with France's continued industrialisation and with the arrival of large numbers of immigrant workers, mainly from European countries like Italy, Spain and Poland, who entered the country to help address France's labour shortage.

    With France's transformation into a modern industrialized nation came the growth of a large industrial working class with its own flourishing professional, social and cultural organisations to protect its interests. Many of these industrial working class communities lived in les banlieues and the years between the two world wars (1920s and 1930s) saw the emergence of les banlieues rouges or la ceinture rouge of working-class communities bound together by a shared workplace, trade union and common political allegiances. The so-called banlieues rouges reached their peak in the mid-1930s with the electoral sucess of left- wing coalition of Le Front Populaire.

    The image of les banlieues rouges stands in sharp opposition to that of the present-day banlieues: les banlieues rouges were the places where impoverished but struggling communities were engaged in a collective fight to improve their living conditions.

    The Mid-Twentieth Century

    The key years of suburban growth in France however, occurred during les trente glorieuses. les trente glorieuses witnessed the rapid growth of les banlieues with some 3 million council properties (logements sociaux) built between 1955 and 1975 to help meet France's housing needs. Postwar France, it should be remembered, suffered from an acute shortage of accommodation, overcrowding, a delapidated housing stock in need of modernization and a large population resident in the so-called bidonvilles (shantytowns) that were found in most large cities and were only replaced in the 1970s (the bidonville at Nanterre was one of the last to go). This housing shortage was aggravated by both the `baby boom' of the 1950s and 1960s and increasing numbers of immigrants, this time mainly from north and sub-Saharan Africa.

    These years then, are the so-called années de béton, the years in which bulldozers and cement mixers worked overtime to clear France's overcrowded inner city slums and bidonvilles and to produce clean, modern homes, the majority of which were large high- rise estate situated in suburbs districts. These new homes were called Habitations à Loyer Modéré and the large estates known as as grands ensembles.

    The Late Twentieth Century

    The golden age of clean and modern homes created during les trente glorieuses didn't last long. The economic recession, initially triggered by the oil crisis of 1973, marked the end of the boom years. Redundancies, factory closures and, of course, increasing unemployment began to have a dramatic impact on the social cohesion and living conditions of les banlieues. The economic growth of les trente glorieuses had come to an abrupt end and much of the ambitious housing built during this period found itself poorly suited to the changing economic climate. Those housing estates, for example, that were built close to factories to meet the needs of their workers soon found themselves with large proportion of unemployed tenants who found themselves stranded in a suburban desert. A good example of this is the Cité des 3 000 in Aulnay-sous-Bois - itself subject to four nights of rioting in October 1993 - as described by François Maspero in Les Passagers du Roissy-Express (Maspero: 1990 pp.49-57).

    On top of the negative effects of the economic downturn, les banlieues began to experience the exodus of their wealthier residents. The affluence generated in the boom years of les trente glorieuses led to many of the higher-income families (skilled or semi-skilled workers, lower management etc.) moving away from the high-rise council estates where they had lived in the 1960s and early 1970s to private suburban estates. As they became owner- occupiers, they left behind them communities that were increasingly made up of those on low incomes. Those residents who could not afford to move out remained in these suburban grands ensembles facing rapidly deteriorating social conditions and a further impoverishment of amenities available to them. The feelings of isolation created by the geographical isolation of les banlieues from the city - most are cut off by various communications arteries (motorways, railway lines etc.) - were exacerbated by the decline in living conditions and many residents came to feel themselves captives in hostile social desert.

    Sarcelles (1999)

    Hervé Vieillard-Baron sums up the transformation from dream home to ghetto in his recent book les banlieues:

    Les signes de rupture apparaissent à la fin de la période [les trente glorieuses]: la périphérique devient l'anti-modèle. Ses qualités se sont épuisées au point de connaître un retournement spectaculaire: ce qui était le produit de la réforme part à la dérive. Les couches moyennes désertent; les ménages s'isolent; les discours sur l'insécurité et le refus des étrangers se banalisent. (Vieillard-Baron: 1996 p.79)
    By the very end of les trente glorieuses the banlieues were beginning to be perceived to be a problem that would require urgent attention. As early as 1976, an initiative called Habitat et vie sociale was introduced to improve the living conditions in many suburbs, with many similar initiatives following in later years.

    The banlieues and France's Ethnic Minorities

    The rise in the immigrant population on the poorest estates - immigrant families were often allocated accomodation in the worst estates (Hargreaves: 1995 p.72) - led to the perception, prevalent amongst many residents and exploited by political parties like Le Front national, that the deteriorating living conditions of the estates were, in fact, directly attributable to their ethnic minority residents. The media coverage of the numerous riots that took place in les banlieues since the early 1980s, but most spectacularly in 1990 and 1991, and of the growing parallel economy (`l'économie parallèle' or `l'économie de la rue') of drug dealing and robbery intensified the public perception that the `problem' of les banlieues was also a problem that directly related to France's ethnic minorities and to the alledgedly unassimilable young men of North and sub-Saharan African origin.

    Azouz Begag and Christian Delorme summarize well the transformation of les banlieues in their book Quartiers sensibles:

    Dans les espaces où les aménageurs ont cherché la cohabitation harmonieuse des différences, avec pour objectif un enrichissement mutuel, se sont accumulés handicaps et vulnerabilité, pour finalement faire surgir le spectre du ghetto. (A. Begag & C. Delorme: 1994 pp.14-15)
    It became common for journalists as well as certain politicians to claim that the disturbances in France's banlieues were akin to the racial violence of America's ghettos. There is, however, little evidence to support this claim. Despite their heavy concentration of residents from ethnic minorities, France's banlieues are more mixed than American inner-city ghetto like Harlem or the Bronx and white European residents remain in the majority on most estates. Moreover, whereas many black American ghettos are predominantly mono-ethnic, that is to say, dominated by one particular ethnic group, such a population composition is highly unusual for a French banlieue. Multi-ethnic banlieues are, with just a few exceptions, the norm in France. A study of Sarcelles in 1990, for example, showed a highly heterogeneous population mix of around 80 nationalities (Vieillard-Baron: 1996 p. 80). This broad mixing of ethnic groups didn't occur by accident as many housing departments actively discouraged the over- representation of any one ethnic group on a particular estate with the aim of ensuring la mixité sociale. It is, however, certainly the case that there are a few banlieues with a higher than average concentration of one ethnic group like the North African communities in Garges- lès-Gonesse, Saint-Denis, Mantes-la-Jolie, Vénissieux (Vieillard-Baron: 1996 pp. 881-2). One might also add here that living conditions are also better in France with lower levels of poverty (a better benefit system, healthcare etc.) and much lower levels of violent crime.

    Mathieu Kassovitz's representation of three young men of different ethnic origin in La Haine might be said to be an accurate depiction of the multi-ethnic reality of les banlieues, a faithful portrayal of young men who have more in common - the same generation, the same socio-economic status (working-class and unemployed) broadly the same lack of opportunities open to them - than they have separating them. One might compare Kassovitz's representation of a Parisian banlieue in La Haine with Spike Lee's representation of a New York inner city district in Do the Right Thing. Whereas La Haine shows a solidarity created by socio-economic exclusion and expressed through a shared youth culture (Afro-American in inspiration) that cuts across ethnic divisions, Do the Right Thing reveals a predominantly mono-ethnic district (Afro-American) in which ethnicity is all and in which the Italian-Americans depicted are seen as not wholly part of the community.

    The fears that France's banlieues were becoming American-style inner-city ghettos (e.g. headlines like Banlieue-ghetto, Le Bronx à Paris) are exaggerated then.

    Why `la peur des banlieues?'

    Henri Rey in his recent book La Peur des banlieues asked the question `À quoi renvoie la peur des banlieues?' (Rey: 1996 p.9) and answered it with the argument that the fear of les banlieues conceals a set of deeper fears:

    [L]a peur des banlieues, c'est d'abord la peur que la société éprouve à l'égard d'elle- même, une peur qu'une partie de ses membres tente d'exociser par le rejet de l'autre. (Rey: 1996)
    Henri Rey claims that these are fears:

  • that relate to history and to earlier conflicts between wealthy centre (populated by the well off) and impoverished periphery (populated by les classes dangereuses);

  • that France is becoming a violent, crime-infested and racially divided society on American lines (`La peur des banlieues, c'est un peu la peur de l'Amérique' p.11);

  • about France's ethnic minority communities (`La peur des banlieues, c'est encore la peur de l'étranger ... de l'Africain, Arabe d'abord' p.11) - this fear reveals an anxiety about France's so-called unassimilable ethnic minorities: the fear of les banlieues is, in fact, a fear that the so-called French Republican tradition of assimilation is being undermined by an ethnic minority youth `underclass' who cannot, or will not, integrate into French society;

  • about France's future (`incertitude d'une société sur son devenir' p.12) related to globalisation and new patterns of work;

  • about the growth of the far Right (`la crainte d'une dérive politique extrémiste' p.13) related to the high levels of support for Le Front national in les banlieues.

  • Bibliography

  • C. Bechmann & L. Basier, Mise en images d'une banlieue ordinaire: stigmatisations urbaines et stratégies de communication (Paris: Syros/Alternatives, 1989)

  • A. Begag & C. Delorme, Quartiers sensibles (Paris: Seuil, 1994)

  • F. Dubet, La Galère: jeunes en survie (Paris: Fayard, 1987)

  • A. Jazouli, Les Années banlieues (Paris: Seuil, 1992)

  • A. Jazouli, Une Saison en banlieue (Paris: Plon, 1995)

  • F. Maspero, Les Passagers du Roissy-Express (Paris: Seuil, 1990)

  • P. Merlin, Les Banlieues (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999)

  • J. Menanteau, Les Banlieues (Paris: Le Monde-Editions, 1994)

  • D. Pinson, Des Banlieues et des villes (Paris: Éditions Ouvrières, 1992)

  • H. Rey, La Peur des banlieues (Paris: Presses des Science Po, 1996)

  • J-M. Stébé, La Crise des banlieues (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999)

  • H. Vieillard-Baron, Banlieue, ghetto impossible (Paris: Editions de l'Aube, 1994)

  • H. Vieillard-Baron, Les Banlieues (Paris: Flammarion, 1996)

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