Has the situation in France’s suburbs improved?

As volatility drew attention to French suburbs in the last decade, this article asks whether life there is now improved.

President Francois Hollande paid a rare visit to one of the infamous “banlieues” this week — Courneuve, north of Paris — where he vowed that under the egalitarian principles of the French Republic, “no areas are left behind.”…

“This could explode once again, because the social injustices are still there and there is a deep hopelessness among the young,” warned Mehdi Bigaderne, the 32-year-old deputy mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, the Paris suburb where the 2005 riots began and then spread to other parts of the country…

But many see the changes as cosmetic. It can still take an hour and 40 minutes to reach Paris even though the capital lies just 15 kilometres (nine miles) away…

One official report found unemployment was 23 percent in the suburbs, compared to nine percent countrywide, in 2013. Among people aged 15 to 24, the figure rose to 42 percent.

Experts say the problems of the “banlieues” have deep roots, one of which is urban planning.

In other words, solutions to this require extended work rather than quick platitudes or actions that don’t address the deeper issues. But, are citizens in these metropolitan areas truly interested in promoting the welfare of all? How serious are different levels of government about addressing the issues? Is promoting better urban planning enough of a solution? This will be worth watching for quite a while to see if conditions improve.

What foreign governments say to warn their citizens about Chicago and other big American cities

Here is a brief look at what some other countries say about American big cities in order to warn travelers:

Well, just as State warns Americans about dangerous places to travel, so too do foreign ministries in other countries — and some countries warn their citizens to avoid heading to certain cities in the U.S. France, in particular, warns travelers to be careful in a large number of specific cities…

Chicago: Stay away from the West Side and anywhere south of 59th Street…

Boston: Avoid walking at night in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury, and be wary of “petty crime” in Chinatown, the North End and Fenway.

New York: Be wary in Times Square and at the Statue of Liberty, and don’t go to Harlem, the Bronx or Central Park at night.

Washington: Northeast and Southeast should be avoided, and Union Station is dangerous at night. “Le quartier Anacostia n’est pas recommandable de jour comme de nuit.” Translation: Don’t go to Anacostia, day or night.

Interesting instructions that seem to be based around avoiding poorer or higher-crime areas of big cities. Perhaps the better question is how many Americans would give the same instructions to family members or friends.

Unrest in Paris suburbs highlights changes in suburbs around the world

Tensions ran high last week in a Paris suburb as immigrants reacted to their economic and social conditions:

Weekend violence outside Paris triggered by France’s controversial veil ban has highlighted how tensions with the Muslim community are adding to an already-volatile mix of poverty and alienation in the country’s blighted suburbs.

The unrest in the Paris suburb of Trappes erupted after a man was arrested for allegedly attacking a police officer who stopped his wife over wearing a full-face veil in public.

Feelings of anti-Muslim discrimination, coupled with unemployment and tensions with police are creating an “explosive” mix in the suburbs, said Veronique Le Goaziou, a sociologist and expert on urban violence in France…

A few kilometres (miles) from the Chateau de Versailles, Trappes is a poor city of 30,000 surrounded by wealthy neighbours. In 2010, half the households lived on less than 13,400 euros ($17,600) a year and unemployment was at 15 percent.

“This is a terrifyingly common situation,” said sociologist Michel Kokoreff. “We are in an area that has problem after problem, where people have a profound feeling of abandonment.”

This is a reminder that the monoculture view of suburbs, that they primarily consist of the middle- to upper-classes around the world living in isolated communities, is simply not the case in many places.  American suburbs are increasingly diverse (recent posts: more poor residents, more aging residents, more immigrants looking for opportunities) and suburbs outside of many European cities have been poorer from the beginning (though the increasing religious diversity is of more recent decades). All together, there are plenty of suburban problems for American and French suburbs to address. The actions taken (or not taken) have the potential to set the course individual suburbs but also suburbs as a whole for decades to come.

Similarity between US and France: right-wing voters in the suburbs

Although American and French suburbs are often different kinds of places, here is one intriguing similarity: voters in both American and French suburbs have leaned to the right in recent elections.

Her strong showing gives her National Front (FN) hope of its first seats in parliament since the late 1980s. It also casts the spotlight on a new phenomenon: the success of the far right among lower middle class suburban voters.

“In 2012, the far-right vote has crystallized in these communities far from the big-city centers,” said Nice University sociologist Gilles Ivaldi.

In the past decade, soaring real estate prices have forced the working class and lower middle class out of urban centers and into soulless suburban housing estates, inconveniently far from their jobs and often with few public services.

These people are not the poorest of the poor, but squeezed between the bourgeoisie and an immigrant class living in drab tower blocks on the edge of the big cities, they fear they have the most to lose…

A study by the left-leaning Jean Jaures Foundation shows Le Pen scored the highest vote in suburban communities located between 20 and 50 km (12 to 30 miles) from metropolitan centers. In the cities, her score averaged less than 15 percent.

Could we see a political convergence of disaffected, conservative right-wing voters from suburbs on both sides of the Atlantic?

One big difference: this article is primarily about far right-wing voters in France who have a ways to go before becoming a sizable political presence compared to Republicans.

French suburbs known as “zones of banishment”

The French suburbs are getting more media attention in the lead-up to the run-off election. This article talks about the current status of the “urban sensitive zones”:

Inside the French suburbs, referred to here as “zones of banishment” or “the lost territories of France,” the 2012 presidential elections seemed like a good time to wake up the nation.

In a small office in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, a group of mostly Arab and African 20-somethings hit on an idea: Create a “crisis ministry of the suburbs.” It would address France’s ignorance about the 731 areas ringing the country’s biggest cities, known officially as “urban sensitive zones,” where most of France’s non-European minorities live. Geographically, they are suburbs, but socioeconomically, they resemble the US inner city.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe gave the upstart “ministry” a temporary office next to City Hall. For two days, rappers, artists, and activists merrily held court with a French media that rarely makes it to the suburbs and worked on a 120-point reform plan. Several presidential candidates, including front-runner François Hollande, showed up.

But the good vibe didn’t last. Days later, Mohammed Merah, a self-styled Islamist radical born to Algerian parents in a Toulouse suburb, shot and killed two soldiers, three children, and a rabbi. The killings seemed to reinforce all the stereotypes and fears about the troubled suburbs.

A fascinating overview.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I think many Americans would have difficulty processing this given our images of the suburbs.

2. Issues of race/ethnicity and class take place all over the world. The article suggests French students hear that their country is “an egalitarian utopia without issues of race and religion” but the situation on the ground suggests otherwise.

3. It would be interesting to read a more complete story of government involvement in the suburbs. How did this happen (politically and funding-wise) and is this what the government prefers?

Fighting for presidential votes in the French suburbs illustrates a different kind of suburbia

American suburbs are often considered home to a lot of white and wealthy residents who have fled the city. This is not how suburbs work in some European settings: two stories about politicians fighting for presidential votes in France illustrate these differences.

It was here that Marine Le Pen managed to secure the greatest percentage vote for any village in the country; of its 60 residents, nearly three quarters put the far-Right candidate above all others…

“What has worked has been to turn this campaign towards rurality, and the far suburbs, poor France,” said Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochère, one of Miss Le Pen’s campaign spokesmen. “Her people versus the elites seems to have taken root.”…

According to sociologist Christophe Guilluy, these rural areas, along with many middle-sized towns hit by de-industrialisation and layoffs represent, 40 per cent of the electorate.

Here is another report:

But “rural” areas today does not mean villages full of farmers. It means small provincial towns, and the new housing-estate commuter belts being built on the distant outskirts of the cities.

“The rural underclass is no longer agricultural. It is people who have fled the big cities and the inner suburbs because they can no longer afford to live there,” says Mr Crepon.

“Many of these people will have had recent experience of living in the banlieues (high immigration suburbs) – and have had contact with the problems of insecurity.”

In this semi-urbanised countryside, people feel the hopelessness of a life in poverty uncompensated-for by the traditions and structures that would have made it bearable in the past.

In these stories, the wealthy live in cities and inner-ring suburbs while the poor live in more far-flung suburbs (what Americans might call “exurbs”) and more rural areas.

If Americans read about this run-off in France, I wonder how many will notice this difference in suburban life in France compared to the United States. Actually, I wonder if many Americans simply think that Americans suburbs are a common feature of metropolitan areas around the world rather than a more unusual case.

Elderly co-housing in France an alternative to Going Solo in the United States?

While Americans may be increasingly living alone, Le Monde reports on another trend: co-housing among the elderly.

This unconventional but pragmatic solution is happening all over France – dozens of house-shares have already been created, and they are giving food for thought to many in their 60s, 70s and 80s…

According to Yankel Fijalkow, urban sociologist and author of “Sociologie du Logement” [Sociology of Housing], “House-sharing for the elderly is a sort of group response to the ambient individualism.” Fijalkow says. “It is part of the same phenomenon as co-housing – houses with shared facilities – in Northern Europe and the United States or housing cooperatives. Faced by the fragility of the family unit, a desire emerges to recreate a quasi-family.”

But Fijalkow adds: “Let’s not be idealistic. Accommodation is expensive, and this is mostly a commercial transaction. With the current changes in family models, we go from being part of a couple to living on our own or in a house-share. People are flexible and adapt when the housing market is prohibitively expensive.”…

This system is being adopted all over Europe. Colocation Seniors, an organization in the western French city of Nantes was inspired by a similar project in Belgium, and has already helped dozens of seniors set up house-shares in the last three years, offering continuing support even after the house-share has been organized.

It is hard to know from this article how big of a trend this really is.

It is interesting to hear Fijalkow talk about these two motivating factors: a desire to have a “quasi-family” and economic realities. Which of these are more important? Does this suggest that people with more economic resources would not choose co-housing? It is already a foregone conclusion in many places that most families are fragile and/or past the breaking point?

This also reminds of the end of Kate Bolick’s article “All the Single Ladies” from November 2011. Here is where Bolick ends her thoughts on current relationships between women and men – a tour of a sort of dormitory for single women in Amsterdam:

The Begijnhof is big—106 apartments in all—but even so, I nearly pedaled right past it on my rented bicycle, hidden as it is in plain sight: a walled enclosure in the middle of the city, set a meter lower than its surroundings. Throngs of tourists sped past toward the adjacent shopping district. In the wall is a heavy, rounded wood door. I pulled it open and walked through.

Inside was an enchanted garden: a modest courtyard surrounded by classic Dutch houses of all different widths and heights. Roses and hydrangea lined walkways and peeked through gates. The sounds of the city were indiscernible. As I climbed the narrow, twisting stairs to Ellen’s sun-filled garret, she leaned over the railing in welcome—white hair cut in a bob, smiling red-painted lips. A writer and producer of avant-garde radio programs, Ellen, 60, has a chic, minimal style that carries over into her little two-floor apartment, which can’t be more than 300 square feet. Neat and efficient in the way of a ship, the place has large windows overlooking the courtyard and rooftops below. To be there is like being held in a nest.

We drank tea and talked, and Ellen rolled her own cigarettes and smoked thoughtfully. She talked about how the Dutch don’t regard being single as peculiar in any way—people are as they are. She feels blessed to live at the Begijnhof and doesn’t ever want to leave. Save for one or two friends on the premises, socially she holds herself aloof; she has no interest in being ensnared by the gossip on which a few of the residents thrive—but she loves knowing that they’re there. Ellen has a partner, but since he’s not allowed to spend the night, they split time between her place and his nearby home. “If you want to live here, you have to adjust, and you have to be creative,” Ellen said. (When I asked her if starting a relationship was a difficult decision after so many years of pleasurable solitude, she looked at me meaningfully and said, “It wasn’t a choice—it was a certainty.”)

When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.

How modern societies reconcile aging and individualism will be very interesting to watch.