Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
They’ve been called “no-go zones”—regions where no rules apply. To residents, they’re neighborhoods that are stigmatized and neglected. Why haven’t targeted policies to fix them had the intended effect?
AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS—I cross the street at Boulevard Marc Chagall—not far from where the Grand Paris Express metro stop is set to open—and cut through a small garden. Chants of “No justice, no peace!” are wafting below the din of the traffic.
In a knot of modernist public housing complexes—cités, as they’re called—is a crawling crowd of a few hundred people: flocks of young kids, moms and dads with strollers, grandmas in headscarves, academics, activists, and a couple of journalists. Young men secure the borders of the demonstration, and from time to time, hand out bottles of cold water. They wear neon construction vests over black T-shirts that make a simple request in bold, white font: “Verité pour Yacine.”
The rally snakes through the streets, stopping intermittently to demand that the residents who are watching from their windows come down and join. It ends at a small park next to Cité Savigny, where 24-year-old Yacine Ben Kahla was last seen.
On September 14, this young man was hanging out with some friends at that very spot, right next to the building in which his family lives. At 4:50 a.m., he told his mom on the phone that he was on his way up. He never made it.
The next morning, Ben Kahla was found dead in the cellar of his building with his pants around his ankles. The police told his family that he had died of a cocaine overdose. To his family, though, the pattern of contusions on his body appears consistent with the way the French police immobilizes people, his brother Bilel later tells me. The family does not feel like they’re getting straight answers, and have a modest demand: a sincere, transparent investigation into the death.
The lack of trust in the police’s word is neither new to the residents of Aulnay-sous-Bois, a suburb in Seine-Saint-Denis—the 93rd Department and one of the poorest regions of France—nor is it incidental. Ben Kahla’s death comes months after news broke that officers allegedly raped a 22-year-old from the area with a baton. The police called it an accident. And last year, another young man named Adama Traoré died under suspicious circumstances in police custody in another town further north. The incident was called “France’s Ferguson” and catalyzed its own parallel Black Lives Matter movement. The police initially said he’d died of a heart attack, but contradictory official accounts have surfaced during the investigation.
On this overcast October afternoon, exactly a month after Yacine Ben Kahla’s death, his family addresses the gathering of neighbors, friends, and strangers. “This is geographic injustice,” Bilel, 29, tells the group in French. “People in the ‘quartiers populaires’ do not have the same access to rights and justice.”
The outskirts of Paris are not—and perhaps have never been—neutral spaces. Today, the term “banlieue” or “suburbs” has become a euphemism for the racial other; these spaces embody the stereotypes that plague their residents, many of whom are working class immigrants of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The young, Muslim men hailing from these areas are regarded as aimless delinquents at best, and imminent terrorists at worst. And the women: in need of liberation. This spatial stigma isn’t an abstract thing, either. It prevents residents from getting jobs and getting into good schools; it invites stricter policing; all in all, it creates a positive feedback loop of unemployment, poverty, anger, and political apathy.
Affirmative action to correct for these socioeconomic problems is off the table in a country that clings to a color-blind Republicanism so doggedly that information about race is not even collected in the Census. As a workaround, a territory-based aid plan was created. Since the 1980s, France’s urban policy or “politique de la ville” has singled out certain areas—mainly in the banlieues—that require special attention. Called “sensitive urban zones” (ZUS) at the beginning—and since renamed to “priority neighborhoods of the city” (QPVs)—these areas have been sites for direct government interventions in housing, economic development, education, and security for the last forty years.
But according to the residents, activists, and academics I talked to, this policy may have just institutionalized the stigma, eclipsing the benefits it currently provides. Many worry that it does not directly address the root cause of the issues in these spaces—that it’s a “solution façade,” as Bilel Ben Kahla puts it. Ultimately, it leaves intact the feeling among banlieue residents that it isn’t just their physical presence that’s peripheral, but also their identities and histories.
Spatial stigma: a long tradition
I walk into Le Khédive café in the Saint-Denis commune of 93, directly opposite a gothic basilica where French queens were crowned back in the day. Chayma Drira, a 23-year-old journalist and student at the Sciences Po, is sitting by the window.
Drira’s family came to the country during the 1960s after the Algerian War of Independence and lived in shantytowns in Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, she tells me. In the 1970s, they moved to public housing in La Courneuve—also in the Department 93. It was here that Nicholas Sarkozy, who was minister of interior at the time, famously vowed to “clean up” the cités in 2005. At another point, he called the young men “scum,” a word with particular venom in French that has congealed in time. Later that year, the banlieues erupted in violence following the deaths of two youths the police were pursuing. (It has since been reclaimed in local slang and rap anthems—perhaps inadvertent wordplay on Du Bois’s idea of “double consciousness.”)
Later, Drira shows me around. We peer at the architecture of the old buildings, zig-zag through the nearby farmer’s market selling canned goods and cheap housewares, and try Algerian delicacies. We take the tram to La Courneuve, where I see South Asian vegetarian restaurants, fast-food kebab joints, and small homes with slanted roofs (“Like Wysteria Lane!” Drira says.) Home prices in La Courneuve are prohibitively high for many because the suburb has a metro stop, Drira tells me. Some areas in banlieue neighborhoods have lots going on, she says, but just blocks away, the same places can seem like ghost towns. Uniformly, though, they lack book stores, libraries, and other “third spaces,” she complains.
The “Other Paris”—as it’s often referred to by journalists—seems to me diverse, varied and most of all, normal. And yet, people in the center of the city do not see it as a place to sit in a café and drink green tea, like we did in Saint-Denis earlier that day, Drira tells me. They are often too scared to come up here because they think it’s unsafe—especially for women. “There is a lot of stigma in this town...because of politics,” Drira tells me in English in a quiet moment between bursts of rapid French.
The suburbs’ bad reputation has adapted to contemporary fears, but it’s centuries old, according to Ernesto Castaneda-Tinoco, a sociologist at American University in Washington D.C., who studies the stigmatization of marginalized urban spaces. It goes all the way back to medieval times, when Paris was walled off so that the peasants who lived outside and sold their goods inside could be taxed upon entry. In the mid-1800s, Baron Haussman designed the airy boulevards of central Paris for the elite, very much with the intention of relegating the underclasses to the outskirts.
“In the time of Haussmann, the Paris bourgeoisie often spoke about ‘les classes dangereuses’ — the dangerous classes,” Jean-Louis Cohen, an architectural historian, told the New York Times Magazine in 2009. “He sought to expel the popular classes from the center, to push them out, to the north and northeast of the city. But it marks the beginning of a long conflict.”
Later, when factories sprung up outside Paris, the people who worked in them lived nearby. In the early 20th century, the French Communist Party had a strong presence in these parts, casually called the “red belt.”After the World Wars, France reconstructed with the help of migrant workers from other parts of Europe and from former colonies. Like Drira’s family, many first lived in shantytowns at the fringes of the city. In the ‘60s, they were folded into behemoth public housing complexes—many of them designed with utopian ideals in mind by famous architects such as Le Corbusier. This was done strategically.
“During this relocation process, the choice was made not to mix these people with the others but to separate them in specific neighborhoods or in specific housing within these neighborhoods—so from the outset, the segregation model was in place,” says Thomas Kirszbaum, a sociologist who specializes in urban policy at the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan.
While French ghettos emerged in a different political context and in response to different historical stimuli than the ones in the U.S., they were similar in that they were created intentionally and they trapped their poor residents of color in poverty, often for generations. “All this means is that the French government, but also the mayors and so on, they have a huge responsibility in the construction of the French model of segregation.”
Today, these suburbs are sprawling with narrow sidewalks and wide streets, but their pockets of high-density public housing have become “archipelagos of social exclusion,” writes Paris-based architect Léopold Lambert. Lambert has been working on a series on discrimination and design in the banlieue for his magazine Funambulist. He has mapped the spatial disparities in transit and pedestrian infrastructure, for example. He has also argued that decisions perpetuating racial and economic segregation are still being made today. To support this, he has visualized the municipalities in the Paris metropolitan area that currently have less than 25 percent of social housing in their jurisdiction, required by a law updated in 2013. (Municipalities have until 2025 to reach that threshold.)
The warmer the color of the jurisdiction in the map below, the lower the share of social housing. The darker grey areas, on the other hand, have more than their 25 percent share. Note the difference between Central Paris and the outskirts:
As the concentration of Muslim migrants in banlieue neighborhoods has grown with increased migration, so has the fear that these spaces are breeding grounds of anti-state sentiment and extremism—even though the evidence that terrorists come from practicing Muslim families, particularly from the banlieue, is contested. The belief that Islam is incompatible with national identity and values is supported by politicians on the far right and the left.
In response, the French government has pushed to control public spaces. The longstanding ban on Muslim garb in the name of “laïcité,” or secularism, is perhaps the most well-known example of that. But there are others. Just recently, 100 or so lawmakers, led by Valérie Pécresse, the head of the regional government in the Paris area, disrupted street prayers held by Muslims in the north suburbs who were demonstrating the closure of their mosque. "They were singing the Marseillaise, throwing it in our faces, even though we're French people here,” a worshipper named Abdelkader told the BBC. “We're French. Long live France!"
The label: an albatross
Politique de la ville was created in the wake of anti-racist demonstrations in the early-1980s. A mix of criteria—including reputation, share of youth and foreigners, and unemployment—was used to select urban sensitive zones in the first iteration of the program.
"What you must have in mind is that [the banlieue] was constructed as a public problem as soon as youth descending from the Maghreb—specifically, Algerian migrants—suddenly became visible in the public space,” Kirszbaum says.
Today’s 1,300 priority neighborhoods are based on a reformed methodology that is seemingly more objective—it takes into account only the income levels of the residents. Functionally, the policy developed new administrative territories for the purpose of distributing extra funds. The categories also serve as an information-gathering metric—a way to compare socioeconomic gaps between distressed and thriving neighborhoods.
The main objective of politique de la ville, according to some experts, was to equalize the playing field between minorities and other French in a race-neutral way. In that regard, the policy has come up short. One big reason is that these areas don’t cleanly overlap with minority or poor residents. According to Patrick Simon, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED), only 20 percent of French minorities live in these neighborhoods. “If it were 90 percent, you’d say, ‘OK, when we’re talking about these neighborhoods we’re talking about ethnic populations,’” he says.
The second issue, Simon tells me, is that the funding allocated to these places has not matched the need. “Politically, you advertise action, but in reality, you don’t put so much money into it,” he says. In the summer of 2017, the government announced an 11 percent cut in the politique de la ville budget, Le Monde reports.
Cries from the far right, meanwhile, allege that these areas still get too much taxpayer money. Drira remembers watching Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Front, ask why it is that these areas get special attention. To Drira, who is no fan of Le Pen, the question the right wing politician posed seemed interesting: Why were these zones so heavily concentrated in Grand Paris when poor people existed everywhere?
“It speaks to their paternalistic attitude that the government has [towards us],” she tells me at the café in Saint-Denis. “It has to do with how the people in these spaces are regarded: as a population that needs civilizing, needs assistance, saving...It’s a neo-colonial attitude.”
Priority neighborhoods have indeed served as either punching bags or projects, depending on who’s talking; usually, it’s the former. In that sense, this designation has perhaps helped conserve the stigma that it sought to dismantle. It literally draws a boundary between “them” and “us,” Kirszbaum tells me. “It is also very much loaded with political or social imagination.”
“Sensed and Probed”
Perhaps the most well-known reference to “priority neighborhoods,” or sensitive urban zones in the U.S. media was in the the lead-up to the 2016 election, when Fox News famously called them“No-Go Zones”, suggesting that police officers were too scared to enter these areas. The French have their own version of that term: “Zones de non-droites”—where no rules apply.
In reality, of course, the police are a constant presence in many of these areas, experts say. One way to clearly see that is to take a close look at the architecture of the police stations in these neighborhood and compare them to the ones in whiter, wealthier inner Paris neighborhoods. Lambert, the architect, took an inventory of these buildings and mapped them out. The new ones (the large circles in the map below), which disproportionately stand near cités (red blotches), are cold, fortress-like, windowless, and uninviting; the ones in richer, whiter areas in Central Paris are historic buildings with large windows and welcoming entrances. “That says a lot bout the way the police, and by extension the state, represents itself within those areas,” he says, “as being engaged in some sort of phantasmagoric civil war or something.”
Of course, it’s not just how the police are representing themselves that’s different. Their approach is, too. In the early and mid-2000s, anthropologist Didier Fassin conducted an ethnography of priority zones, in which he detailed how police harassed youths, Roma populations, and undocumented migrants to make daily quotas. In 2012, he wrote an op-ed in Le Monde on the conduct of the powerful arm of the national police—the Anti-Criminality Brigade (BAC). Here’s a translated snippet from that piece about the ZUS territories where they operate:
Contrary to the popular notion that the banlieues, and notably the cités, are supposedly destroyed from the inside by crime and delinquency, the statistics of the Interior Ministry reveal a less somber situation. Most of the serious crimes have been declining for decades, and their incidence in the sensitive urban zones isn't higher than the ones in the surrounding urban areas.
That the French police disproportionately target minorities has been pretty well-documented. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report found that black and brown residents—even if they were as young as 14—were more likely to be stopped, frisked, and often verbally and physically abused. In 2016, the highest French court also found that the police illegally profiled young men of color. But in the priority zones, the presence of the police grows stronger. In 2012, the Socialist Party’s Manuel Valls, who was the interior minister at the time, revealed “security priority zones” for targeted policing operations. Per a 2016 government report, 77 out of 80 of these zones are in priority neighborhoods.
At a café in Sarcelles—a banlieue commune sometimes called the “Little Jerusalem” because of its large Jewish population—I met Henry Shah, who researches slum populations in and around Paris. He puts the language of the priority zone label in perspective: “’Sensible’ doesn’t mean ‘sensitive,’ it means an area that needs to be sensed or probed,” Shah tells me. There's a parallel here, he says, between the rhetoric employed by the Sarkozy government in 2010 when it designated the clearance of Roma slums a priority. “The fact of an area being a 'priority' for the government is tied into controlling public space and controlling populations deemed risky.”
The French Ministry of Interior, which oversees the national police, said it could not respond to CityLab’s questions in time. A spokesperson for Colombe Brossel, Paris’s deputy mayor of security, prevention, popular areas, and integration, told CityLab that while Brossel agrees with the previous government’s designation of priority security zones, she believes more work needs to be done in improving relations between the police and communities. That includes better communication on police action, better identification of police officers, and making identity checks fairer and more effective, the spokesperson said in an email statement.
Former President Francois Hollande had promised to put in place a system of accountability in which officers gave out receipts each time they stopped someone, but that didn’t end up happening. On the contrary, after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, he called an emergency that extended law enforcement powers. It lasted longer than the one called during the Algerian War—finally ending on October 30, 2017. In its place now stands a sweeping, permanent anti-terrorism law, which codifies some of the extended police powers. Human rights groups fear that it is only going to further stigmatize the country’s Muslim population.
One change that local politicians proudly point to as a politique de la ville success story is the crop of snazzy buildings that have come up in the banlieue. Since 2003, a bulk of the funding has been allocated toward these urban renewal projects. The idea is that replacing the run-down public housing complexes with more open, new buildings will attract a mixed income population to these areas and allow for more “eyes on the street.”
The residents I spoke with in Aulnay-sous-Bois regard these projects with skepticism. Many worry, for example, that these new housing projects, just like the transit expansion in suburbs, would jack up the real estate prices, displacing current banlieue residents farther out to the outskirts. Another concern is that the neighborhood facelifts are superficial, not as actual investments in the fabric of the banlieue communities. "They are changing the physical space, but not creating social links,”says Drira, whose grandmother’s building in La Courneuve is set to be demolished in 2018.
But what if the polique de la ville had not existed at all? “The situation would be much worse,” Kirszbaum says. “That would be the common sense evaluation." The big “but” here is this: politique de la ville doesn’t seem to have made the situation all that much better. Banlieue residents don’t feel their situation is very different from what it was a decade ago.
So, what’s the solution? For Naima M'Faddel, a city official from Dreux, it’s doing away with these designations altogether. “It has resulted in too many perverse effects,”she said in a 2016 interview to L’Express. For Simon, the researcher at INED, politique de la ville could still work if it refocuses on its original intent—to help people gain access to opportunities, rather than to simply alter the physical attributes of the spaces they live in. Kirszbaum, the sociologist, also emphasized the importance of giving communities a seat at the table, to empower grassroots organizations, and actually listen to the conversations happening in these spaces. From these recommendations, a central theme emerges: any workable solution needs to address people, not just the place. And if officials are making policy decisions without listening to what the banlieue residents want and need, then there is little chance they are going to succeed in tailoring their solutions.
This week, President Emanuel Macron announced a “new approach” to the politique de la ville, which involves a doubling of money going to the urban renewal program. Drira is not persuaded by Macron’s promises. If the French government were really sincere about helping, she says, it would acknowledge its own role in creating the banlieue; take responsibility for colonialism and slavery and understand how the legacies of these actions persist in the way these urban spaces are policed today. Even though Paris recently expanded its physical boundaries to include many suburban municipalities, Drira says the city has yet to fold the residents of these spaces into its imagined community—into France’s idea of itself. It needs to recognize that the banlieue is not the other, it is othered by the state. “They keep blaming the problems [of these neighborhoods] on us,” Drira says. “and yet, it’s they who are not making an effort.”