France’s ‘banlieue’ is a term often associated with the impoverished suburbs on the outskirts of cities such as Paris, known for mass public housing, crime and deprivation. They came to the attention of the media and the international public during the early 2000s, when civil unrest led to widespread rioting and arson. These ghettos became infamous as they burned, shining a light on the socio-economic divisions in French society. Civil disobedience in the suburbs was coupled with police brutality as they attempted to clampdown on the disorder, leading to claims of racism, as these areas were largely inhabited by North African populations, the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan African populations. More recently, these suburbs have been blamed for cases of Islamic radicalisation.
The development of these suburban projects began after the end of the Second World War. Post-war France had a need for low-cost housing to rebuild the cities as the population grew. During the trente glorieuses, the three decades of economic growth following the war, mass housing became a part of the modernisation of France. From the 1950s to the 1970s, over 6 million new homes had been built in social housing estates, demonstrating the scale and speed of construction. This was not only peculiar to France but part of a global post-war renewal as also seen in Britain and the United States.
The choice of architecture in these projects was heavily influenced by the famous modernist architect Le Corbusier. The Swiss-French architect was a pioneer of the International Style, consisting of repetitive forms, the rejection of ornate decorative elements and a preference for simple forms as well as the use of industrial materials such as concrete and glass. Le Corbusier developed the principle of Unité d’habitation, a residential housing principle that resulted in large-scale apartment blocks that were functional and typically high-rise.
Le Corbusier had a vision of multi-storey tower blocks in Paris, devising his ‘Plan Voisin’ in the 1920s. A controversial plan, it involved demolition of the current streets of central Paris to make way for uniformity in the form of distinctly modernist concrete high-rise blocks and skyscrapers,. Whilst the ‘Plan Voisin’ was never realised, some of the ideas and aesthetics can be seen in the functional housing developments on the outskirts of the city.
What was not envisioned, however, was that these spaces would turn into ghettos. During this time, a wave of immigrants from France’s former colonies began to settle in France and by the 1970s they began to occupy these social housing projects. Middle-class French families moved into home ownership through the state sponsorship of low-interest loans, and away from these areas, resulting in a social segregation.
As the social housing projects took demographic shape, policy was revised. Urban planning gave way to the realities of these lived spaces. Mass housing is inextricably linked with notions of welfare and by the 1980s the French government began to formulate social policies to tackle the social problems that had begun to occur in these areas. The ‘Urban policy for Disadvantaged Neighbourhoods’ was introduced in the late 1980s and was focused on improving community relations, rather than the construction and housing aspects. However, by the 1990s the policies had altered to redesign these neighbourhoods, resulting in the demolition of tower blocks to attract more affluent inhabitants. By 2000, a policy of social mixing had ensued. This social mixing policy required a certain proportion of social housing in municipal areas with mixed tenants in an attempt to reduce the social segregation that had occurred and promote an ‘urban renewal’, essentially to destigmatise the banlieue.
Whether the social mixing policy has worked is questionable. Due to the Republic’s motto of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité ‘, census information about ethnicity was not included when formulating policy, but the reality is that these impoverished areas are home to large populations of ethnic minorities. Additionally, the policy of demolition has reduced the amount of affordable housing stock in these areas as part of the urban redesign. These areas are still deprived and the social problems remain.
The geography of these housing projects is surprisingly specific and represents a spatial segregation along socio-economic lines. Paris is a stark example of this, with certain arrondissements considered to be ‘no-go’ areas. Websites offer advice as to the areas to avoid, and these are largely in the Greater Paris region, such as the 93 in the north-east of Paris, Seine-Saint Denis, the poorest region in the country, as well as Clichy-sous-Bois where the 2005 riots began, and Grigny, in the southern suburbs of Paris. The north quarters of Marseille and communes such as Vénissieux and Saint Fons in Lyon follow a similar pattern. ‘La Haine’, a film by Mathieu Kassovitz, depicted life in the banlieue in the 1990s, portraying the lives of gang members and their interactions with the police. The banlieue, then, is a part of the social fabric of France, filtering into its cinema and art.
In central Paris, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Seine are all synonymous with great history. These residential developments are noticeably absent from the city centre. These zones of social exclusion are hidden in plain sight, with ten million Parisians living in these suburbs in contrast to the 2 million living in central Paris. The government’s response to social unrest in these areas has been harsh policing and a zero tolerance approach. For example, former President Sarkozy, in response to the 2005 riots (then Interior Minister), said that he would clean the streets with ‘hoses’, to get rid of the ‘rabble’. Such words only serve to further the sense of alienation amongst these communities. In spite of his harsh rhetoric, in 2008 Sarkozy set out social programme of public spending in the poorest neighbourhoods in France, a so-called ‘Marshall Plan’. The three year plan included increased policing, job training for youths and further education opportunities for people living in these areas.
In 2018, President Macron rejected the idea of another ‘Marshall Plan’ to renew these suburbs, due to the fact that previous attempts have already taken place with only limited success. Instead he is taking a socio-economic approach that focuses on increased hiring by businesses of those who live in the banlieue and reducing discrimination in hiring practices as well as improving standards of education at primary schools. The measures follow a report produced by centrist minister Jean Louis Borloo, recommending vocational training, apprenticeships and renovations of dilapidated buildings.
The recent gilets jaunes movement that saw protests rage across France in 2019 has exposed to the world the gap between the rich and poor in France. Now with a spate of terrorist incidents in France there is a suggestion that Islamic radicalisation is taking place amongst the disaffected youth living in the banlieue. Such suggestions could further demonise the inhabitants of these impoverished areas, and it seems that the social schism is becoming harder to ignore.
The ‘banlieue’ is a fading remnant of modernist idealism. Whilst Corbusier is not entirely to blame, mass housing in this style didn’t take into consideration the everyday realities of the people who would come to live in them, stuck in a housing socio-economic trap, their lives dictated by their postcode. The broken window theory that keeps people in a cycle of poverty needs mending from the ground up so that these neighbourhoods are no longer swept under the rug.