The return of the state to the Parisian banlieue

Eight years since the 2005 Parisian riots and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announces a ‘return of the state’ to the banlieues. The recent resistance to this ‘return’ has marked an end to its short-lived political consensus and has forced a revaluation of what it truly means to be a citizen of France’s so-called ‘abandoned’ suburbs.

Joel White
19 March 2013

 Flikr: Jean-Marc Ayrault, François Lamy talking to residents of Clichy-sous-bois, Seine-Saint-Denis (93).

With unemployment levels reaching nearly 30% in some of Paris’s urban outskirts, and with a quarter of young-people leaving education as ‘échec scolaire’ (without qualifications or apprenticeships) the deepening detachment between the wealth of the Ile-de-France (Europe’s wealthiest city region), and what Royal Holloway’s Mustafa Dikec terms as the ‘Badlands of the French republic’ remains horrifically evident.

The recent resistance to Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French Prime Minister’s, declaration that the State has made its ‘return’ to the banlieues only acts to confirm this detachment between the 20 central arrondissements of Paris (known as the Intra-muros: literally ‘inside the walls’) and the more densely populated banlieues that encircle the inner city. Although nowhere near as explosive as the 2005 Parisian riots, Ayrault’s recent guided tour of Clichy-sous-Bois was not without its confrontation. A confrontation that begs the question: what does the ‘return’ of the state actually mean to the everyday lives of the residents living and working in the Parisian suburbs, and why, if Ayrault is declaring that the French Republic ‘will no longer abandon’ the banlieues, was there any resistance at all?

Notably, the statement does appear to resituate the Parisian outskirts back into the realm of political debate. An attempt perhaps, by the French government at responding to the demand made by the ACE Le Feu (an organisation of local representatives formed in the aftermath of the riots) that the word banlieue, and its connotations, should no longer be a ‘taboo’ term that demonises a disadvantaged political class. However, whilst the State’s declaration to ‘return’ to the outskirts remains mainly rhetorical, many believe that this ‘return’ will only mask another attempt at the gentrification of urban space and the subsequent upheaval of France’s most vulnerable citizens. However, as the fragmented nature of the city is built into the materiality of the urban layout and into the very fabric of the French language, it is hard to see how this rhetoric will convert itself into actualised social integration.

Parisian development - past and present

Paris’s spatial history over the last 200 years is overwhelmingly haunted by the spectres of George Eugène Haussmann and his extravagant redevelopment of Paris in the 1860s, which included a near 60% overhaul of medieval Paris. The project was criticised for the sheer cost of involved and the inevitable destruction of highly populated areas for what was mostly an aesthetic pursuit, whilst the Situationist movement of the 1960s heavily criticised Haussmann’s urbanism as an ‘inherently capitalist science.’  The Situationist’s argued such science, divided leisure from work places, and therefore had a significant effect on the spatial division of labour, creating a geographically determinable fragmentation of class.  From just a quick glance at the plan below it is possible to see the stark differentiation between the wealthy centre, the poorer northern ring and the deeper French country side that makes up the rest of the Isle-de-France.


Source : Insee-DGI, Household fiscal revenue

In many respects, each policy and plan for the urban redevelopment of Paris is an attempt to deal with the repercussions of Haussmann’s design, Ayrault’s statement and the proposed plan for 2015 is no different. The development plans proposed by the CIV (the Comité interministériel des Villes (CIV) for the Parisian outskirts include: reprioritising 1000 areas considered by the CIV to be the most vulnerable against 2500 before. This means a shift in political and fiscal resources to the 1000 areas which are to be named in June, and a gradual disengagement of funds to the remaining 1500 areas. This has created great concern for the 1500 areas which are likely to receive less funding from 2014 onward, and it will no doubt perpetuate resentment toward those that are likely to be prioritised.

The Métropole de Paris

Over and above this, the most significant plan for Paris is the creation of what has been termed, the ‘Métropole de Paris,’ which particularly seeks to integrate the inner city with the quarters located outside of the Boulevard Périphérique. The idea is to increase housing development from 40,000 new builds/ renovations to 70,000, reopen the proposed plans to build new train links, and create a new committee that includes councils representing each department. Significantly, this plan is to be codified into the French law, and is to be considered as a decentralisation of power.


To halt the risk of sounding entirely cynical about the Socialist Party’s proposals, the decentralisation of power, which shall include the reorganisation of housing, public services and welfare to each departmental president, and the creation of the term ‘Métropole de Paris,’ does have integration and intercommunality as its central aims; aims which should be at the heart of any attempt at piecing together the fragmentation of urban space. However, as with any decentralisation there is always the risk that instead of creating equality through empowerment, further divisions will be made, with the richest suburbs investing solely into private housing, forcing the poorest residents into highly concentrated areas of poverty.

Representation as demonization – the meaning of Banlieue

The existence of clearly demarcated areas of social living does not just remain at a merely geographical or spatial level. These separated living and working zones produce the differentiation of class representation within language itself. There is transference from the division of space and labour to the division of language. This language then becomes the means of differentiating class with relative ease whilst at the same time loading the word banlieue with extra meaning.  For example, the French media happily use banlieue to mean areas with high levels of poverty, violence, drug and human trafficking, ethnic and religious conflict without considering the fact that the surplus meaning demonises all those who live in that area. Furthermore, the French far-right is quite persistent, if not effective, at sustaining these connotations by turning individual incidences into generalised statements of truth. For example, provoked racial violence such as burning of neighbours cars does occur in the French outskirts, as it does throughout the world, but one incidence becomes that everlasting piece of evidence that allows for the incrimination of the whole.

To look to the history of the word ‘banlieue’, it is possible to see how Paris’s redevelopment in the 19th century was to a certain degree a causal factor in the development of its now specific French use. For example, the word faubourg was the prominent French word for suburb or outskirt in France during the first industrialization of Paris during the early 19th century. However, the Haussmannian Paris removed many traces of the ancient faubourgs, and the term banlieue was then coined. It is clear, however, that the term in the 19th century did not carry with it the connotations that it carries today. In parts of French speaking Africa, the word still preserves a fairly neutral meaning, and in Quebec it means quite simply suburb. Although it’s impossible to argue for the forced neutralisation of a word, understanding that words are never really neutral, the demonization of France’s most deprived through the day-to-day use of banlieue as a synonym for violence, and ethical corruption is part of the continuing problem of political self-representation and much of the divide.

Return as abandonment

The ‘return’ of the state to any area of land, be that residential or otherwise, largely signals the admittance of abandonment in the first place. Not only this, but in doing so it clearly defines the state as still separate from those it admits it has abandoned. In the Parisian case, the state still recognises the banlieues as areas cut-off from what it considers its own physical, political and representational boundaries to be. A ‘return’ of this sort always represents itself through the initial divorce and highlights what can be called a ‘paternal’ state instinct.

The capacity for political and spatial self-representation is withdrawn by the State’s sole ability to define what it means by ‘Paris,’ and what it means by the banlieues. In fact, I would even go as far as to say what it means by the ‘State.’ Only the government can decide if and when to return, and where and how decentralisation will occur. This division then becomes contradictory, considering the fact that François Hollande and the French Socialist Party found strong voting support from the balienues during the 2012 presidential election, especially from the citizens of the northern area of Seine-Saint-Denis. The governmental structure of representational democracy therefore becomes glaringly contradictory as the voting citizens who live in the Parisian outskirts must, by definition, already be part of a state that considers them still ‘outside’. Each citizen potentially finds themselves considered as ‘not-yet citizen’ of a state they have elected.

It is this paternal, if not arrogant, attitude by the state toward the banlieues of Paris that calls for political resistance. In other words, what the French government is attempting is seen by those who resist as nothing more than territorial pursuit. A pursuit to regain ground lost during the 2005 riots. Seen in this way, Ayrault’s statement about the state’s ‘return’ is viewed as merely propaganda. Therefore, although the government has made the right step in its attempt to integrate and empower rather disparate groups, the jury is still most definitely out on what will become concrete.


 Wikipedia Common: Édouard Manet , A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

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