Residents of the American suburbs may hold the keys to major political outcomes. Is the same true in France?
ON THE FRINGES of greater Paris, where urban concrete meets farmed fields, lies the suburb of Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt. Gently curved streets of two-storey houses, each with a parking space and garage, cover what were once apple and pear orchards. The narrow high street has just one café, and a “Cheesy Pizza” takeaway joint; but there is a drive-in Burger King on the outskirts. This is what the mayor, Nicolas Leleux, calls “the border of two universes”: city and countryside. It captures the worries and hopes of middle France, and exemplifies a crucial electoral battleground for April’s presidential poll.
Shy of extremes, the suburb tilts to the centre-right. In 2017 Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt preferred the centre-right presidential candidate, François Fillon, in the first round, but backed the centrist Emmanuel Macron against the nationalist Marine Le Pen in the second. In 2020 it replaced a centre-right mayor with Mr Leleux, a former navy submariner who belongs to Mr Macron’s party. Locals, in other words, may be torn at the presidential poll this time between a vote for Mr Macron, assuming he runs for re-election, and his centre-right rival, Valérie Pécresse. A well-known figure locally, she is the president of the Ile-de-France region, which encompasses the city of Paris itself and Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, 17 kilometres (11 miles) away…
What comes into sharpest relief in Saint-Brice is the collision between the needs of daily life, notably the car, and the desire for a greener future. A place of quiet middle-of-the-road aspiration, it evokes what Mr Leleux calls the “French dream”. “People have left the city to come here, not to live in a tower block, but in a house with a little garden, with neighbours, and a place to barbecue.” Nearly 88% of households own at least one car. His task, he explains, is to reconcile that dream with the need to reduce car usage. Few can afford an electric vehicle. Mr Leleux is planning cycle lanes and building a bike shelter at the railway station, on a direct line to Paris. Yet on a cold day in January there are no cycles to be seen on the streets…
Fashionable Parisian talk of the ideal “15-minute city” is all very well, says Mr Leleux. The reality is that to buy a baguette in under 15 minutes without a car is not possible in much of suburbia. If anybody has learned this, it ought to be Mr Macron, who won a huge majority of the vote in big cities in 2017, but later faced months of gilets jaunes protests. For now, insists the mayor, locals credit the president nonetheless with having been a “good captain” in difficult times. In April, it is on the streets of middle France, not the parquet-floored salons of Paris or its tenements, that such a claim will be tested.
The focus in this analysis is on cars as a divisive political issue. Can suburbanites afford electric cars? If they cannot, what does this mean for suburban life? I could imagine a similar question in the United States with numerous manufacturers moving to electric vehicles
But, I wonder if the electric car is just a symptom of deeper differences based on how the car factors into the fabric of suburban life. In the United States, I have argued that homes, cars, and a way of life are all connected in suburbia. It is not just that a new kind of car is expensive; any disruption to driving changes suburban life. Cars help enable larger yards, private space, and separated land uses. People want amenities to be within a 15 minute drive and this significantly widens their travel radius compared to walking.
Perhaps the other possible suburban disruption on this scale would be to threaten single-family homes and yards. I put the single-family home as the #1 feature of suburbs that Americans love. (Cars and driving is at #5.) Yet, it is hard to imagine suburbs today without homes and cars together.
In the meantime, I will keep an eye out for more analysis from France to see if the suburbs matter in elections in the same way as they have mattered in recent American election cycles.