Essays - Spring 2006

On the Outside Looking In

Paris and its banlieues in November 2005

By Nancy Honicker | March 1, 2006
The skyline of Montrieu, a suburb to the east of Paris. (Damien Boilley/Flickr)
The skyline of Montrieu, a suburb to the east of Paris. (Damien Boilley/Flickr)


Few expressions in the French language today join so artfully, so subtly, the weight of history to the tensions of the present as that of la crise des banlieues; yet in English this resonance disappears. The literal translation, the crisis of the suburbs, fails to convey a tragic note, a Rabelaisian one as well, which only becomes audible once one becomes attuned to the echoes of the past. For the French, banlieue, at its origin, was the refuge of the criminal, the poor, and the enterprising, home to those who, banished from the city, were condemned to err within an intermediary zone between the fortified city and the countryside, extending one lieue —or one league, about two and a half miles—beyond the city walls. Here one found abject misery; yet here also were golden opportunities, found nowhere else. Here an enterprising man could make his fortune, away from prying eyes.

Banlieue is an ancient word, which has its roots in the language of the Gauls, considered the first inhabitants of France. In medieval Latin, the threat of banleuca, as it was called in the 12th century, had the power to terrify: beyond fortified city walls there was no safety, only danger and the darkness of night lit only by the stars. Until the first years of the 20th century, Paris remained a fortified city, but its fortress walls had become an anachronism ever since the Germans sent cannonballs flying over the parapets during the Franco-German war of 1870. By 1919, the last wall had been torn down, and by 1930, the city of Paris had become, in its habitable surface area, the city it is today.

As late as 1943, however, barriers still existed at the various entrances to the city, and people carrying into Paris merchandise that was not a basic necessity were stopped at tollbooths where they had to pay a tax, l’octroi, which gave them the right to sell their goods within city limits. Among those goods was alcohol, and many an enterprising man made his fortune by selling wine and spirits outside the city walls.

Thus, for centuries, the banlieue has represented a place of danger and opportunity, a perfect terrain for crisis because of its very instability. Today there are no more tollbooths, nor are there city gates or walls, yet the route from Paris to its banlieues remains the passage between two different worlds.

The most recent crise des banlieues, that of November 2005, brought the world’s attention to the northern suburbs of the city of Paris. Much was written about the abject misery and danger of these “rough neighborhoods” (I am quoting President Chirac, who called them “les quartiers difficiles” in a speech to the nation on November 14). Suburban cities like La Courneuve and Clichy-sous-Bois—the town where the violence began after two boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted while fleeing the police on October 27, 2005—have been presented to the world in conventional shades of black, dun, and gray. Yet what of the golden opportunities, what of the subversive joy of the outsider, both age-old ingredients of communities beyond the pale, whose inhabitants are forced to live by their wits? Might it be possible to lift up a seam of those uniformly gray suburbs and find a golden underside?

At first glance, the prospects are not good. I am standing at the Porte de la Villette, one of the northern gateways to Paris. One hundred years ago cobblestone streets echoed with the clatter of hooves, the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the snorting, but also the plaintive, almost human cry, of hogs—all being led to the slaughter. Here, between the Porte de Pantin, another northern gateway, and the Porte de la Villette, today a vast park, home to the Cité de la musique and the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie, was a labyrinth of stalls and corrals. Here, each day, thousands of beasts were bought and sold before being led across a bridge, over the Canal de l’Ourcq—which today very prettily divides the park in two—to the slaughterhouses, where daily, until 1955, they were killed and prepared for the butcher shops of Paris.

With the park behind me, cut off from view by a high wall of recent public housing and a huge hotel conveniently located, for motorists and buses, at the gateway to Paris, I approach a railway overpass. I must walk beneath it—the first obstacle on the path from Paris to its northern banlieues. There is no visible barrier, no tollbooth, but the roar beneath the overpass is deafening: a constant stream of train traffic from the Gare de l’Est rumbles overhead, shaking loose a shower of soot and other filth from the iron bridge. All of Paris is polluted; no longer can one stroll pleasantly along the rue de Rivoli, especially at rush hour when car exhaust clouds the air, yet there one finds beauty, and here there is none. Those of us who make the passage on foot walk quickly, eyes down or straight ahead. Next to us, cars rush by, and above there is the clatter of trains.

On the other side of the overpass, we are still in Paris. Paris! This is a no man’s land, reserved for men who are invisible to the throngs of motorists and pedestrians who each day crowd the Parisian boulevards. Here the homeless are herded onto buses that will take them to shelters for the night. At dawn, they will be back in the streets. I walk among the listless men, who pay no attention to me. On each side of us there are rail yards. A six-lane highway divides the yards in two. Across the street from where the men huddle, there are a gas station and a bus depot. This is the buffer zone between Paris and its dangerous banlieues.

But one delicate passage remains before leaving the city behind: the périphérique, the modern equivalent of a fortress wall, an expressway that encircles Paris, following in many places the outline of the city’s last ramparts, whose final vestiges disappeared in 1919. Cars zigzag across a vast open space, heading on and off the périphérique, in or out of Paris, in what appears to be a rodeo where all rules of the road have been temporarily suspended. Standing at the entrance to an on or off-ramp, pedestrians nervously look both ways (there are traffic signals, but it is wise not to count on them) before they make a run for it. After one more off-ramp, we have arrived: the northern suburbs, les quartiers difficiles, the 9–3 (neuf–trois), as it is called here, in reference to the numbers that identify the residents of Seine-Saint-Denis, as this suburb is called, on their license plates and in their postal code.

I have just entered the suburban town of Aubervilliers. Recently reporters flocked here and to the neighboring town of La Courneuve to interview idle youth hanging out in gangs outside or in the lobbies of their apartment blocks. The young people rage on about the lack of opportunity and about the racism and intolerance of the French (a category to which they too belong), and in many ways their criticisms are not wrong. Those who participated in riots justify their actions as the ultimate expression of their ras-le-bol (their being filled to the brim with disgust).

At the entrance to Aubervilliers stands a tall residential building overlooking the périphérique. The sidewalk in front of it is often transformed into a makeshift bazaar. On this cold November evening, a handful of men, straddling kitchen chairs, their arms resting on the seat backs, sit outside and talk. Closer to the doorway of the building, from a brazier set atop a shopping cart, a young man is selling roasted ears of corn. Men go in and out of the lobby; nearly all the windows are lit. This is a Foyer Sonacotra, one of many residences and dormitories for workingmen throughout France, owned and financed partly by the state. The first such dormitories were created in 1956 to house workers from what was then France’s colony of Algeria. This particular residence is inhabited mainly by black-skinned men from sub-Saharan Africa.

These are the men who sweep the sidewalks with green plastic brooms, or empty the city’s garbage cans, or vacuum office buildings in the middle of the night. Some work night shifts in order to attend university by day, and some are political refugees. Others are retired and share a crowded room, because this is all their pension allows. There is also a new generation of young immigrants, many from Mali, Ivory Coast, or Senegal, men who have left their country and families to go, as they say, to “where there is bread.” France is their hope, and they are the saviors of the families they have left behind. What they get is a crowded room in a foyer, where men sleep on bunk beds, cook their meals in communal kitchens, and pray in makeshift prayer rooms. For this, many of their compatriots are ready to risk their lives in getting here.

Is that why, despite what must be extremely trying living conditions and possibly even worse working conditions, the men who inhabit this Foyer Sonacotra seem possessed of a buoyant energy? They have made it to France, they work, and they can give their families hope.

On this cold evening, activities out front on the sidewalk are limited, but in warm weather, at this hour, the makeshift bazaar would be in full swing, especially on a Sunday. On their sole day of rest, many devote themselves to entrepreneurship. The tailor is at work, as is the shoemaker. One might spot a shopping cart full of raw chickens, their dangling heads and claws spilling out of the cart, for a price that can’t be beat; or vendors of prepared food such as manioc, fried plantain, grilled chicken and meats; or vendors of video cassettes, cassette tapes, and CDs. Music is blasting, men mill about (this is a masculine world—in all of France, only 6 percent of the space in such foyers is reserved for women, most of it in special structures for mothers raising their children alone). Across this busy scene wafts the scent of golden opportunity.

In the busiest commercial district of Aubervilliers, a neighborhood appropriately called Quatre Chemins (Crossroads), another breed of entrepreneur is at work. Here are the resellers of contraband goods: meek, patient Chinese women who stand for hours with a bottle of perfume in their hands, trying to attract the attention of passersby, nervous young men with cheap nylon bags, filled with imitation Dior or Louis Vuitton purses—they work fast and disappear quickly, having engaged in dangerous work. Some women dangle one or two gold chains from their fingers. Others, stooped against a wall of a vacant lot, display on the sidewalk what may be the clothes off their back. There are also many legitimate shops and some food stores in the style of North Africa, where the customer goes up to a counter and is served by an employee, who discretely disappears when it is time to pay, for only the owner handles cash.

Quatre Chemins represents a true crossroads, for who knows how many nations and continents meet here. Noisy, vibrant, dangerous, poor, and full of opportunity—for the entrepreneurial and also for France.

Yet the French Republic is blind to its immigrant population and the surplus of energy it could bring to an ailing nation, but one not condemned to inevitable decline. The French, proud to arrogance on the surface, don’t love themselves enough deep down inside. Engaged these past months in a collective ritual of auto-flagellation, they seem to have lost sight of the very reasons for their greatness, which remain obvious to any outsider in their midst. What’s more, the French Republic is blind by law. Each citizen is considered as an individual, freed from the burdens of race, religion, ethnic origins, and sex; and citizenship is a vocation, where it is each individual’s sacred duty to uphold the Republic’s ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. For this reason, the French government keeps no official statistics on the race, religion, or ethnic origins of its citizens. What’s more, in most instances, it is against the law for public or private institutions to collect such data.

The French government keeps careful statistics on the number of foreigners residing in France. It also keeps careful statistics on the population of its prisons, whose inmates are overwhelmingly of North African and sub-Saharan African origins. In this time of national crisis, however, it cannot provide reliable statistical information about those citizens who have recently immigrated to France or about their children. Those who have tried are accused of breaking the law and harshly criticized. This was the case in 1992 for Michèle Tribalat, a researcher at the National Center for Demographic Studies, when she published a report concerning the children of immigrant parents that provided well-documented proof of discrimination and exclusion in the areas of employment and housing. The document represented an infraction of the law. Critics found Tribalat’s research methods scandalous, and they expressed the fear that such studies, based on ethnic origins, would only serve to reinforce those stereotypes that link immigration and juvenile delinquency.

Since 1992, there have been other “violations,” few in number but eloquent in their conclusions: three sociologists in the Bordeaux region, using first names rather than family names as a way to get around the law, arrived at a statistical measure that proves, in their eyes, the existence of ethnic apartheid in the public schools. In 2004 and 2005 two independent reports, both commissioned by the French government, argued in favor of the use of ethnic and racial data as a means to combat discrimination in the workplace—contrary to the recommendations of the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, an independent government council whose task is to monitor the use of data collected by government and private enterprise. And the National Center for Demographic Studies deftly skirted the issue of ethnicity when in 1999, at the time of the last national census, it inserted in an appendix an “optional question” concerning the country of birth of one’s parents. The results were only recently made available online, precisely five days after the flare-up of suburban violence in late October. It is no surprise to learn that discrimination weighs most heavily on those French citizens whose parents were born in black Africa, North Africa, or Turkey.

An indirect consequence of the restrictions placed on the collection and use of ethnic or racial data has been the creation of a perverse double standard in the media depending on whether they are reporting on domestic or international affairs. For example, while Katrina raged in the United States late last summer, newspaper, television, and radio deplored the fate of America’s poor blacks. In late August, when three tenements in and around Paris went up in flames, causing nearly 50 deaths, the victims, most of them black, were called “immigrants.” Images on the nightly news spoke louder than words, but never was explicit reference made to the victims’ race; what’s more, the term immigrant was sadly imprecise, for some of the victims were French.

In this way the French are called upon to adhere to an abstract model of citizenship. Yet they can and do see . For a brown or black-skinned citizen, this can mean, in concrete terms, lack of opportunity, or outright discrimination, in housing, employment, and politics. For the blind Republic, Karim, Sabah, or Mamadou are no different from Jacques, Céline, or Pierre; they are citizens all. But for Karim, Sabah, and Mamadou, it is difficult to perceive things that way. Among the immigrant population, especially the “second generation,” there is a deep sense of exclusion, discrimination, and difference; but there is also a strong aspiration to be accepted by the general population as French.

On November 14, when President Jacques Chirac addressed the French nation for the first time since the banlieues had erupted in violence on October 27, something looked different about him: he was wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Was this a sign that the Republic itself was ready to learn how to see?

Though a few cars burned within the fortress walls, Paris was largely spared during the November violence. Most of the damage was reserved for the suburban towns beyond the périphérique. Even so, when I set out on November 11, Armistice Day, a public holiday in France, walking in the direction of the northern banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis, I was expecting neither violence nor flames. Nor was I in search of angry young men, ready to give me their version of recent events. I was simply on my way to visit friends living in a small suburban town, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, well hidden from the eyes of reporters on the lookout for anger and misery. I go there to breathe easy, to travel, in the space of an afternoon, worlds away from the noise and pollution of the vast Paris region—though, paradoxically, while in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, I remain at its very heart. On November 11, however, I got sidetracked just as I was completing my crossing of the périphérique.

Setting out from the Porte des Lilas, at the northeastern edge of Paris, I had crossed three busy boulevards before I arrived at a wall overlooking a kind of moat, a superhighway, eight lanes wide, carved out of the slope of the hillside. Here, at one of the highest points in the Paris region, pedestrians cross over, not under, the périphérique. In front of me is the entrance to the town of Les Lilas, gateway to Seine-Saint-Denis, where I see some blocks of public housing. I also see a very recent private housing development, a huge structure in the form of a ziggurat, offering wide balconies and a panoramic view to its residents, the kind of apartment complex one would expect to find on the Riviera or the Florida coast. Stores are open; the street is crowded with shoppers and families out for a holiday stroll.

On the other side of the street, across the wide boulevard that joins Paris to its banlieues, stands a group of young men. They are looking toward the corner of the first intersection within the city limits of Les Lilas. I look that way as well. On the ground is a strip of fire. This strip, as if laid down with geometric precision, corresponds to the width of the motor of a small black car. It burns in the front of the car, from tire to tire. I insist on its linear quality and its compactness. To begin, the fire burns only on the ground. But soon the flames lap the fender and the headlights. Very quickly they spread to the interior of the motor. They attack the fuel tank and the car begins to blaze. Orange flames leap into the air. Now everyone is watching. Several people whip out cell phones to alert the police and firemen.
There is a popping sound, a subdued explosion. The fire continues to blaze, but it is almost blotted out by thick, black smoke that rises into the air and fills the entire boulevard, enveloping us all, burning our eyes and our nostrils, filling our mouths with the acrid taste of burning rubber, fuel, and chemicals. One car on fire has the power to create the impression of a major conflagration.

A fire truck arrives, and three firemen jump out. They spray the flames and the car with chemicals that quickly extinguish the fire. Gray smoke replaces black. The air clears. The motor of the black car has been reduced to a gnarled, charred ruin, but the rest of the car is surprisingly intact. The Parisian banlieues are on fire, as everyone knows, and a minor blaze has just taken place before my eyes.

If I look over my shoulder, I see Paris behind me, a few hundred yards away. And what I ask myself is this: when Paris is so very near, when no barrier separates the capital from its suburbs, why is the car burning here, in Les Lilas, and not on the other side of the périph?

During the first two weeks of November 2005, the eyes of the world were focused on France. On November 3, the lead story on ABC News was “Paris is burning,” and on the Web site of CNN, the words “French Violence” continuously flashed across the screen in the style reserved for major conflicts, such as the war in Iraq. There was talk of the risks of civil war, and the suburban uprisings were being compared to the Palestinian intifada and the war in Chechnya. On November 8, after more than 5,000 cars had been burned and police stations, schools, courthouses, post offices, gymnasiums, and public transport had been damaged, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin declared a state of emergency, reactivating a 1955 law dating from the time of France’s colonial war with Algeria, which had not been put into effect in continental France since 1961. One week later, the temperatures dropped below freezing, and the cold weather brought the violence to a stop. The number of cars set on fire each night throughout France dropped to about 100, which is the norm for any one night of the year.

A month later, I am sitting in a classroom at the state-run university of Saint-Denis-Vincennes where I teach. The university is located at the edge of the town of Saint-Denis, a few hundred feet away from the city limits of the town of Stains—two of the communities most affected by the recent violence. One month ago, after an evening class, I had scurried with my students from the university to the nearby metro station, crossing a deserted esplanade, usually crowded with passengers awaiting suburban buses. Because of a bus set on fire in Stains and a more serious incident in Sevran, another nearby community, where a Molotov cocktail thrown into a bus seriously injured a handicapped passenger, bus drivers were refusing to work after dark. Few students were in class that evening, because, without the buses, those who live in the suburbs had no way to return home. Now things have returned to normal at a university where most of the students are the children of immigrants.

My students, focused on a midterm exam, pay no attention to me, so I can observe them. What the French cannot do, I can: I can provide a racial and ethnic breakdown of the composition of my class of 29 students. Eight are black, but in France this can mean many things. Four are from the French Antilles, from Guadeloupe or Martinique, though they moved to continental France, what is called the métropole, when they were children. Two are members of the “second generation”: their parents were immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, whereas they themselves were born and raised in France. One of them is an actor, handsome, surly, and mysterious, soon to leave for New York, where he hopes to pursue his acting career. I’d say his chances for success are good. The other, when not studying, is a hostess on the Eurostar, shuttling regularly between Paris and London. The remaining two are foreign students: one, a teacher from Nigeria, the other, a student from Chad, a melancholy, conscientious girl.

As for the remaining students, two are the children of Portuguese immigrants—Seine-Saint-Denis is home to the largest Portuguese community in France; and two are the descendants of the age-old melting pot that French children learn about in elementary school, where the Gaulois (the cartoon character Astérix is a proud representative of that ancient tribe) stew with Huns, Romans, Germans, Franks, Normans, and Visigoths. As for the 17 others, their names—and in some cases, their faces—indicate North African origins. Not all among them are French; a good number are citizens of Algeria. Many are not “Arab”; they proudly identify themselves as “Kabyle,” descendants of the first inhabitants of North Africa, before the time of the Arab invasions. In their own country, their fellow citizens often refer to them as members of the Hezb’ França, the party of France. In fact, most of them speak beautiful French and blend into French society with ease. Born and raised in an independent Algeria that has repressed their language and their culture, they turn to France for a model of freedom and opportunity. And they are learning English in hopes of continuing their studies in the United States, which, they claim, is the one place in the world where Kabyle culture is studied in depth. What unites all these students, regardless of race, ethnic origins, or creed, is their desire to succeed.

Will they all be given a fair chance?

Sitting in my classroom in the town of Saint-Denis, once the seat of the spiritual authority of the French monarchy, as the presence of its magnificent basilica still attests today, I wonder about the future of a nation whose essence, according to one of its great leaders, General de Gaulle, is as old as time itself. In this country where distillation—be it of perfume or of fine cognac—is a centuries-old art, can that essence be altered so that other races and other religions can enter in? Can a town like Saint-Denis, one of the most ethnically diverse of the entire French Republic, once again become a beacon for all of France?

For nearly a thousand years, the Parisian banlieues have been a designated territory of danger and opportunity. As for their future, it depends in part on the French Republic’s capacity to learn to see. It depends also on the ability of us all, citizens of all races and origins, to recognize in our neighbor an individual who possesses something we lack and need. A most difficult agenda, utopian perhaps, but such is the path to the future, and it requires that we all traverse the dangers, the problems, the challenges, and the opportunities, condensed, distilled, magnified in the banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis.

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