It is the Autumn of 2005 and Paris is burning. Suburb after suburb goes up in flames as the French riot police fight pitched battles with local youths.
Meanwhile, in a church hall in London, a senior British politician is taking questions from an audience. A woman stands up and asks him about the nightly violence in France – but instead of referring to ‘suburbs’, she uses the French word banlieues.
To this day I’m not sure whether he couldn’t hear her properly or whether he had no idea what a banlieue was; but, for whatever reason, he didn’t understand the question. So he asked her to repeat it. She did so, using exactly the same phrasing. Again he didn’t understand – and again he asked her to repeat the question. It wasn’t third time lucky. He still didn’t understand and apologetically moved on to someone else.
It was acutely embarrassing for all concerned – and yet the questioner was right to use the word she did. Banlieue means, and explains, so much more than ‘suburb’.
London has suburbs, but they are integral parts of the overall city. Paris is different. Officially, the city consists of its 20 arrondissements (boroughs) and that’s it. The built up areas beyond these limits are both Paris and not-Paris – part of the conurbation, but not part the city.
Administratively, the suburbs are hived off from central Paris into a ring of three different départements (counties). Thus while the mayor of London represents 8.8 million people, the mayor of Paris represents just 2.2 million – despite the two conurbations being the same size.
So that’s the second meaning of banlieue: not so much a suburb as a satellite community – physically attached to, but politically separate from, the city centre.
But that’s not the only division at work. Paris was where “liberté, fraternité, egalité” was first proclaimed. But richer Parisians have taken advantage of their liberté to live as far as possible from their fellow citizens. There’s a distinct geographical pattern to this. Whether in the centre or the suburbs, the richest neighbourhoods are generally to the west. This is an old phenomenon and not limited to Paris or France. Basically, it’s to do with prevailing winds and air quality – the stench of a medieval city and the pollution of a modern metropolis aren’t so bad if you can afford to live upwind.
In the post-war period, it got worse – not the smell, but the geographical inequality. As in many other countries, the effort to build new housing was led by the state. But unlike, say, London where, social housing is spread throughout the capital, the Parisian approach was build on the outskirts.
In part this was because of where the available land was – Paris having been spared the bomb damage suffered by London. However, the scope for large scale development also gave the French planners a chance to implement the theories of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier.
In the 1920s, the Godfather of Brutalism drew up a plan to flatten a stretch of downtown Paris and replace it with a grid featuring 18 identical concrete towers. Thankfully, that never happened. After the war, however, modernism was unleashed on those powerless to resist. And thus we come to the third meaning of banlieue – a specific reference to the vast ‘concretopias’ constructed around the edges of Paris and other cities in the 50s, 60s and 70s .
At the heart of each of these banlieues, is the cité – an inward facing cluster of dehumanising, brutalist tower blocks. Following modernist dogma, the new neighbourhoods were heavily zoned: the residential, commercial and other functions of the community built as separate centres, instead of evolving together organically as they do in a traditional mixed-use neighbourhood. In theory – and modernism is all about the theory – the different centres were to be linked together by bus. In practice, the links were inadequate, as were those from the banlieues into central Paris.
The first inhabitants left as soon as they could and they were replaced by people with no other option. From the 1960s onwards, that has increasingly meant immigrants, especially those from France’s former colonies in North Africa. Thus to the geographical, social, economic and architectural segregation of greater Paris – ethnic and religious divisions were added too.
It’s hard to think of a worse physical context for the successful integration of millions of incomers. The banlieues may as well have been designed as ghettoes.
Of course, other cities also have their cultural enclaves. London is certainly no exception – with its various ethnically and socio-economically distinctive neighbourhoods. Geographically, however, these are small enough, and sufficiently jumbled up, to encourage at least some mixing. That doesn’t mean that London is like a Benetton catalogue come to life, but its internal geography does limit the extent of segregation.
Some parts of Greater Paris are also like this. The south-eastern suburbs include deprived areas, but also wealthier neighbourhoods next to green spaces like the Bois de Vincennes. The north-east, however, is utterly dominated by the concrete banlieues. Administratively, they are grouped together within Seine-Saint-Denis – one of the poorest départements in France, which is sat next to, but a world away from, the richest. A 2014 map of the 1,500 poorest neighbourhoods in France illustrates the starkness of the economic divide.
What we don’t have, however, is a map of the ethnic and religious divide – because in France the state is legally prohibited from collecting statistics on the basis of ethnic or religious identity. In theory (there’s that word again), everyone is equal and being French is all that matters. The reality, however, is one of segregation along racial lines.
In 2015, the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, admitted as much. Marking the tenth anniversary of the 2005 riots he said that there was “territorial, ethnic and social apartheid” in France. He might have added that nowhere is that apartheid more obvious than between the citadel of power and its immediate neighbour.
Of course, nobody intended the banlieues to turn out the way that they did – and yet everything that has happened is the direct result of the deliberate actions of an arrogant and out-of-touch elite.
Perhaps they should all be sent to live there.