A year ago, I took a job as an English teacher in France. I was expecting to see the Old World. What I found instead was Val-de-Reuil, one of France’s New Towns. Val-de-Reuil was built from the ground up in the 1970s. At the time of construction, it was supposed to set the standard in urban planning.
But things haven’t quite worked out that way. Today it’s one of the poorest cities in France. Rows of four and five-story, low-rent apartment complexes line the streets with balconies jutting out from their concrete facades. Val-de-Reuil has two middle schools, one high school, a movie theater and a shopping plaza like you might find in an American suburb. There is no discernible city center. The architecture of the buildings is modern, but not cutting edge and the city has a stark, uniform look to it. In a country that prides itself on history and tradition, Val-de-Reuil seems out of place – a town of boxy, geometric construction in the middle of the French countryside.
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Val-de-Reuil is one of nine New Towns built in the 1960s and ‘70s to address overcrowding in France’s largest cities. The New Towns were also meant to be meticulously planned, self-sufficient communities in their own right. This was an appealing alternative to the tangled mess of the Paris suburbs, large areas of which had been overrun by towering blocks of low-income housing projects.
But though the city was built to correct for the deficiencies of suburban sprawl, Val-de-Reuil has replicated many of the problems it was intended to solve. Its clunky government-subsidized housing looks a lot like the tenements that dot the landscape of the Paris suburbs, albeit on a smaller scale. And the similarities don’t end there. Both the New Town and the Paris suburbs, particularly to the north and east of the city, are plagued by a high rate of unemployment.
So, what went wrong?
To start, the city's concentration of low-income housing has created a weak tax base incapable of adequately supporting the local school system or funding much-needed infrastructure projects. Another problem is that many of the available jobs are not matched to the skill set of the local workforce. A number of big name pharmaceutical companies have laboratories in Val-de-Reuil, including Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi Pasteur. But most residents lack the education or technical training needed to qualify for the positions doled out by these employers. An article published in 2008 in the French newspaper Paris-Normandie put it this way:
On the one hand, a fleet of leading industries, on the other, a population missing out on its piece of the pie.
The two middle schools I worked at are designated "priority education zones" (zones d’education prioritaire) or ZEP. ZEP schools are typically underperforming and have a high dropout rate. They receive additional funding as a result of their status, but my students still struggled to afford school supplies. Many of them came from families that had immigrated to France within one or two generations, and a number of them had been born in countries like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. One 11-year old boy proudly told me he had French, Algerian and Turkish citizenship, then asked if I had ever been to Istanbul. "You should visit," he said. "It’s a beautiful city."
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In Val-de-Reuil, tensions over immigration and nationality spill out into daily life. Immigration has long been a divisive issue in France, where immigrants must conform to a policy of "integration," which calls for assimilation into French society, in speech, dress, culture, and custom.
Even second- and third-generation immigrants – people who were born in France – are routinely treated as "other." On my first day of work, an argument broke out between two students, a blonde-haired boy and a girl with olive skin and dark black hair. When the class was over, one of the teachers who had been in the room pulled me aside. "Did you hear what he said to her?" he asked, referring to the blonde-haired boy. I hadn’t. "He said: ‘go back to your own country, where you belong.'" Later I learned that the girl’s family was from Turkey, but that she had been born in France and had never left the country.
Anger over perceived discrimination has become widespread among first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants in France. It has seeped into popular culture with movies like La Haine depicting the pent-up rage of immigrant youth confined to the Paris suburbs. It has also found expression in real life. In 2005, riots broke out in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois when two teenagers of foreign descent died while hiding from police in an electrical power station. Government officials promised to improve the quality of life for residents of the most run-down housing projects. But seven years later, not much has changed. This past summer violence erupted again in Amiens, a city in the North of France, when residents of the working-class suburbs clashed with police. Participants in both riots later cited government neglect and police brutality as driving factors behind the escalation of tensions.
I saw the same sense of disillusionment in my own students. Halfway through the year, I asked my fifth-graders what they thought the main differences were between the U.S. and France. I expected them to talk about things they’d seen on TV and in movies, and for the most part they did. But one of my students, a 12-year old boy of Algerian-descent brought up the subject of race. "You’re lucky that you live in the U.S.," he said. "Don’t you like living in France?" I asked. "No," he replied with grim certainty. "People are racist here. They take one look and decide they don’t like you."
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Val-de-Reuil isn’t a typical French town. To dismiss the city as an anomaly, however, would be a mistake. Val-de-Reuil embodies a central irony of French urban planning policy. City planners have built up isolated urban enclaves, like the Paris suburbs and the New Towns, which keep the country’s immigrant population separate from the rest of society, at the same time that the government calls for integration. In recent years, planners have invested energy and resources into redeveloping these socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, but France’s foreign-born population continues to face social exclusion.
Going forward, French politicians will either embrace a more inclusive vision of French nationality or cling to unrealistic hopes for integration. It’s unclear which course of action will win out. For now, however, support for integration remains widespread. In 2010, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the forced deportation of the country’s Roma, or gypsy, population after labeling them illegal immigrants. And, amidst controversy over freedom of expression, a law banning women from wearing the burqa in public went into effect the following year. Yet despite attempts to create a more uniform society, immigrants and French citizens of foreign descent are changing social and cultural norms. This is happening even in places like Rouen, a city twenty minutes away from Val-de-Reuil, with winding cobblestone streets, a soaring cathedral and cafes around every corner.
One day while walking through Rouen, I heard people shouting. I turned and saw ten or twelve men getting out of their cars at a red light. They were dancing, yelling and singing – weaving wildly through the maze of traffic as passersby looked on in disbelief. In one of the cars, I saw a woman wearing a wedding dress. In the car behind her, a girl was standing out of the open sunroof, her face partially covered by a white headscarf. As the light turned green and the car lurched forward, she raised the Algerian flag in the air and began to wave it high above her head.
All photographs copyright © Jean-Christophe Besson - All rights reserved. Jean-Christophe Besson is a french graphic designer and photographer: see more Val-de-Reuil photos and his portfolio on Flickr. Info/contact: firstname.lastname@example.org