Many imagine Paris (and, by association, France itself) as a paragon of bourgeois lavishness, with its beautiful architecture, upscale restaurants and chic socialites. But marginalized beneath such stereotypes is “The Other France” — the low-income housing projects on the outskirts of Paris. These suburbs, or “banlieues,” are home to France’s most underprivileged population, which is overwhelmingly Black, Arab and working class.
Take the poorest of France’s banlieues, Grigny. It is only 21.8 km (13.5 miles) south of Paris’s center. As of November 2020, Grigny’s poverty rate was 45%, compared to the nationwide average of 14.6%. Nearly 10% of Grigny’s population lived below the income threshold that triggers state support.
Historical Context of France’s Banlieues
The economic stagnation in France’s banlieues reflects the dual historical legacy of working-class gentrification and colonial ventures. In the 19th century, Napoleon III appointed Georges-Eugene Haussmann to initiate a series of public works projects. The goal was to modernize Paris — then a den of unsightly buildings, overpopulation and disease — by widening the avenues, building parks, replacing the sewers, and more.
Haussmann’s renovations gentrified the city center and displaced the poor urban proletariat to the city periphery, which naturally became a hotbed for Communist, socialist and anarchist political agitation. These radical movements influenced the 1871 Paris Commune, made the banlieues à ceinture rouge (“red belt”) for the French Communist Party in the 1920s and affect banlieue politics to this day.
Another historical influence on the banlieues was France’s colonial rule over Algeria from 1830–1962. The turmoil of the Franco-Algerian War (1954–62) for Algeria’s independence forced many Algerian Arabs to flee to France. Without much financial or social capital, they were relegated to the already-existing poor districts of Paris’s periphery. By the 1980s, around 25% of Paris’s population was Algerian. That figure is roughly how it stands today, too.
After decolonization in the 1950s, a large number of working-class black immigrants from the former French colonies of Western and Northern Africa (mainly Mali, Senegal and Mauritania) arrived to fulfill France’s need for cheap labor.
Thus, the histories of class conflict, colonization and ethnic migration have all shaped the modern demographics and political culture of France’s banlieues.
How Mayor Philippe Rio and Other Local Leaders Are Addressing Banlieue Poverty
In 2021, London-based thinktank The City Mayors Foundation declared Philippe Rio, the French Communist Party mayor of Grigny since 2014, to be “the best mayor in the world” for his progressive social policies, especially during the COVID crisis. Among them included the issuing of 38,000 emergency food vouchers and daily check-up calls to the town’s 2,000 retired elderly people. Rio has always been adamant about addressing the structural causes of the Parisian banlieues’ poverty: lack of educational resources, lack of affordable housing and job discrimination.
“In the ‘land of human rights,’ the fifth largest economy in the world, we must denounce, understand and challenge these phenomena of spatial and social segregation that undermine people’s right to the city,” said the Communist mayor in a statement to the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In 2021, many local leaders, especially in working-class districts, believed that President Macron’s government was not doing enough for France’s banlieues. So Rio, along with 180 other mayors, signed a petition called Appel de Grigny (“Call of Grigny”) to urge Macron’s government to invest more in the banlieues and include them more thoroughly in the COVID recovery plan, as it had diverted only 1% of its €1 billion budget toward impoverished suburbs. Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party mayor of Paris since 2014, endorsed the petition. In the end, they successfully convinced the government to divert another €2 billion towards “urban renewal.”
Within the community, Rio’s administration is working to make Grigny’s housing more affordable. 17,000 of Grigny’s 38,000 inhabitants live in a housing trust called Grigny 2. Due to the severity of their poverty, many cannot afford to pay their bills. This once led to a crisis of “over-indebtedness” that forced landlords to shut off residents’ heating, hot water and natural gas. In response to this, Rio began an initiative for a “100% publicly owned” housing complex powered by geothermal energy. In his interview with Jacobin, he claimed that the project cut bills by 25% and saved 15,000 tons of CO2 emissions in a single year.
Grigny has partnered with nine public bodies — including the regional health agency and Ministry of Education — in a joint “task force against poverty.” Their policies include the free distribution of nutritious breakfasts to children in schools as well as a vocational training center that teaches adults French and job skills. To solidify the right of all residents to have affordable housing, Grigny has created a unit to inspect apartments and take action against predatory landlords who provide “substandard accommodation.”
Philippe Rio is a talented local leader continuing France’s long tradition of “municipal communism” in working-class towns and setting a positive example for other banlieue mayors. This generation of municipal leaders is providing a check against the French State, making sure that it gives necessary attention to France’s banlieues. They recognize that realizing ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ requires addressing the historical legacy of a time when these, quite clearly, did not exist for all.
– Eric Huang