Social housing at the Porte de Brancion, Paris 15e, 2011. Wikicommons/ Fauxjeton. Some righs reserved.Not long before his death in 2000 Pierre Bourdieu’s book Misere Du Monde appeared in English as The Weight of the World. In the book the world famous sociologist and his team reported on the hundreds of in-depth interviews they had carried out with ordinary people, young and old, most of whom were feeling the economic consequences of de-industrialisation and the shortage of jobs, up and down the length and breadth of France.
Among the most vocal of the respondents were the young people, Muslim and often of Algerian origin who were in effect trapped in the banlieues /housing estates, deeply aware of how, by simply stating their postcode on job applications they would almost certainly be rejected. Across the pages of this thick volume come howls of discontent and misery. For the young mothers there were no green spaces for their children to play, for the youth so few provisions of youth clubs as to be negligible. Everywhere they went second or third generation Muslim youths felt the full force of prejudice. Older white French neighbours complained all the time in the most racially stereotypical of ways: smells, noise, too many children, and overcrowding.
The book as a whole is full of visceral dislike, indeed disgust, there are very few moments of anything like multi-cultural conviviality, almost no mention of mixed race love and marriage. There were no signs whatsoever of anything like a shared common popular culture. Instead everything in the book speaks of a disparaging attitude on the part of the white French population: there is no wish for any kind of proximity with their fellow citizens of North African origin.
Given that the research for the book was conducted quarter of a century ago, we might well wonder about what has transpired since then? At the time Bourdieu reported that his team had managed to find one research assistant who had a migrant background and was thus able to speak on an open basis with his young respondents.
In a sense this single fact tells us so much about social polarisation and exclusion and it also suggests that there must only be worsening conditions in these gloomy suburbs where there is so little in the way of provision and public amenities. With austerity and with rising costs of living it is unlikely that there are so many access routes for young people from the banlieues into university never mind onto PhD programmes and research. Is it the case that there is almost no professional class of French-Algerian (knowing that such a category does not actually exist) public sector workers, working in the community, representing the youth, being involved in local politics?
One does not have to be a social scientist to recognise immediately that where there are so few pathways for mobility only discontent, anger and rage will be the outcome. It is also a sociological platitude to make the connection about alienated young males, deprived of activities and status symbols which would otherwise give them reason to feel like they belong, what used to be called ‘goal blockage’, which would lead youths to develop their own ‘subterranean values’ and nowadays jihad.
Indeed a handful of journalistic reports over the years have commented on how some young people from this sector of French society have found happiness in London, at least here there is the possibility of jobs, whether in Pret a Manger, in delivery, or in the vast spread of service sector casual, but nonetheless available jobs in the London area (one only has to look on the Tube adverts for a Job-in-24-Hours website). In effect the French in London are not just the bankers and the corporate elite.
What has happened to Durkheim?
After the Bataclan killings last year, it might have been expected that some among the French political class would have argued for massive social investment in the banlieues including demolishing them, re-housing the inhabitants in temporary homes and then embarking on a full scale re-building programme to give families low rise and relatively more spacious homes with gardens. After all France is the society which more or less inaugurated the discipline of sociology, we need only think of the magisterial Durkheim.
Would there not be academics and think tank people who would call for multiple interventions, along the lines of the kinds of investment in social infrastructure of the early twentieth century including slum clearance, house building programmes, the provision of schools, parks, sports centres, youth centres and libraries, in effect what the well-known French sociologist Bruno Latour has described as the assembling of ‘the social’?
So far we have heard little of this kind of town planning and urban regeneration. Nor do we hear of initiatives to combat alienation and discontent in the banlieues. Are there social enterprises of the sort found in most German cities and funded by European Social Funds such as one or two I myself have participated in including Peer Group Anti-Violence Programmes for At Risk Youth in Kreuzberg, Berlin. What one also finds in Berlin are all sorts of feminist social projects to involve Turkish-German low-skilled women in the fashion sector including craft-work, knitting sewing and crocheting. These bear the hallmarks of long established social democratic urban projects, which one might think need to be nowadays resuscitated and rolled out across urban and rural France as well as in key disadvantaged locations in the UK.