‘The Social Ladder Is Broken’: Hope and Despair in the French Banlieues

‘The Social Ladder Is Broken’: Hope and Despair in the French Banlieues

‘The Social Ladder Is Broken’: Hope and Despair in the French Banlieues

Emmanuel Macron promised to reduce urban inequality, but his policies are out of touch with the impoverished reality on Paris’s periphery.


Abderrahim Abdellaoui, 57, picked me up at the metro stop in Aubervilliers, and greeted me with a smile. “This is where the sun is,” he told me. “I used to live in Paris, but there’s no sun there. Aubervilliers has the sun.”

His warmth was a welcome contrast to the icy December weather, just days into an abrupt shift from fall to winter. Thick clouds packed the sky, and Aubervilliers’s towering gray projects didn’t add much color.

“Everyone is afraid of the 93,” he said, referring to Seine-Saint-Denis, the low-income department just northeast of Paris that includes Aubervilliers and is home to numerous immigrant communities. “But when you come here, when you talk to people, you’ll see that it’s one of the richest places in France.” He parked in front of a sprawling public-housing project, known as the cent douze, or 112—for its address, 112 Rue Hélène Cochennec.

Seine-Saint-Denis, historically an industrial hub for immigrant workers, gained notoriety in 2005 when riots broke out in one of its townships, Clichy-sous-Bois, after two teenagers were electrocuted while hiding in a shed that housed a transformer to escape police pursuit. The ensuing riots rocked France and cast a shadow on Paris’s banlieues, or suburbs. Thousands of cars and hundreds of buildings were burned, and some 6,000 people were arrested. The government declared a state of emergency, and 13 years later, the area’s bad reputation remains. Seine-Saint-Denis is the poorest department in metropolitan France.

Abdellaoui migrated to France from Algeria in 1991, at the onset of the civil war. He eventually settled in Aubervilliers, a township of about 80,000 that neighbors Paris’ 19th arrondissement. He’s friendly and open, and as we walked around the neighborhood, he stopped every couple of minutes to say hello to residents, asking them how they were and how their families were doing.

“Before I got to the 112, even the police wouldn’t come in,” he said, shaking his head, before adding proudly that he “brought order to the neighborhood.” But while security there has improved in the past two decades, many of the residence’s youth are still unemployed. So Abdellaoui took it upon himself to chip away at the stereotypes plaguing many banlieue youth and help them find jobs.

“There are kids here that have never left the projects, that never see the ocean.” Sometimes, he said he organizes group trips to Paris—just a couple of miles away—to “show them that it exists.” Once they get off the metro, he added, police swarm: Black and Arab young men are stopped 20 times more often than the rest of the population, and are regularly subjected to the French equivalent of stop-and-frisk.

As we strolled around the project, Abdellaoui lamented the “complete absence of the state.” A group of teenage boys crowded around a scooter, and he waved them over. He looked directly at Aymen, 19, and asked, “Did you go to the Pôle emploi?” referring to the state employment agency that assists individuals with their job search. Aymen looked down and shook his head no. “You see?” Abdellaoui looked back at me. “If I’m not here to bother them, nobody will.”

Aymen rolled his eyes. “OK, Abderrahim, I’ll go. But I won’t get any of those jobs anyway. What’s the point?”

A younger boy, Mohammed, asked me where I’m from and what I think of Paris. “Is it like you imagined, the Eiffel Tower and all that? Because people say lots of nice things, but I don’t see it—at least here, it’s not true.”

Despite Aubervilliers’s proximity to the capital, it is the fourth-poorest township in France; 42 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, compared to 14 percent nationally. Unemployment, at 24 percent—38 percent among youth—is more than double the national average. And while much of Aubervilliers enjoys metro access, and is, given its location, teetering toward gentrification, other cities in Seine-Saint-Denis are virtually cut off from the capital. It takes 90 minutes and various forms of public transport to reach Clichy-sous-Bois, for example, from the center of Paris, only 11 miles away.

The disparity between Paris and its banlieues is stark, and last year, when Emmanuel Macron took office, he promised, like presidents before him, to reduce urban inequalities. But with the afterglow of his victory long faded, his campaign pledge to break with politics-as-usual by embracing a so-called radical centrism has ceded to right-leaning policies. His pro-business agenda—early moves to change labor policy, slash the wealth tax, and trim social services, notably with a 1.7 billion euro cut to rent subsidies—generated outcry and earned him the moniker “president of the rich.” He has also drawn criticism for reducing the number of emplois aidés, or assisted jobs—short-term contracts given to individuals struggling to find work.

When viewed from places like Aubervilliers, then, Macron is just the latest iteration of France’s self-reproducing political elite, out of touch with the impoverished reality on Paris’s periphery.

I met Meryem Derkaoui, the township’s mayor, in her office, where she described a system of neglect: “We need to fight just to keep public services open—I’m not even talking about adding new ones to meet the needs of our growing population.” She partly attributes that unequal treatment to political calculations vis-à-vis Aubervilliers’s large immigrant population, 36 percent of which is foreign-born. That makes it home to the second-largest immigrant population in France, and, accordingly, many residents who can’t vote

But it’s those very demographics that require government attention, she added, citing one recent battle that infuriated her just to recall: Last year, Derkaoui staged a series of protests demanding a third post office to serve Aubervilliers. Paris has one for every 20,000, twice as many per capita as Aubervilliers did, before Derkauoi’s campaign. In the end, she succeeded, but only after summoning France’s ombudsman for human rights, when her calls to regional officials went unanswered. “Something that seems evident, or completely normal, in any other city is a years-long fight here. We constantly have to be combative to get what we want,” she said.

It’s not just basic social services that require a fight. Rampant unemployment extends from a larger system of discrimination that bars social mobility. “What’s most frustrating is that the jobs are here, but they’re not for the people who live here,” Derkaoui told me. “This population either doesn’t benefit from necessary training, or is stigmatized.” She listed the numerous companies that had recently opened up in Aubervilliers—the luxury brand, Hermès, or the services and utilities firm, Véolia. “But if they’re from the 93, even if they have the necessary diplomas and training, they’re seen as thugs, terrorists,” she said. “But for an American magazine,” she added, leaning in and pointing to my recorder, “you need to explain that, just because we’re on the other side of the city line, doesn’t mean we don’t have educated young people. It’s just that they’re named Mamadou, or Mohammed, that their skin color is different.”

Derkaoui’s allegations of discriminatory employment practices are backed up by social science. All qualifications equal, a job applicant with a name presumed to be Muslim or North African is four times less likely to be hired, according to a much-cited 2015 study. Those biases aren’t just racial, either: A 2016 study revealed that a 30-year-old man with the equivalent of a master’s degree, who lives in a “priority neighborhood”—a category that applies to the vast majority of Seine-Saint-Denis—is 22 percent less likely to be hired as his Paris-based counterpart.

For Derkaoui, who was born in Algeria—she’s Aubervilliers’s first mayor of North African descent, and the first woman to hold the job—that glass ceiling hits close to home. “The Republic abandoned these kids, and it’s too late to make up for lost time. Because we’re decades behind, and the kids are witnessing it. They know very well that if they’re named Jacques or Paul and live in the center of Paris, they’d have all the opportunity in the world.” Ethnic or religious discrimination constrains the effectiveness of urban-policy measures to correct the inequalities in France.

Those trends aren’t new, but France’s conception of race itself—that it doesn’t exist—complicates the difficult task of correcting economic inequalities on racial or religious lines. The country considers itself colorblind; like in Germany and Italy, the census doesn’t categorize by ethnicity, and the national narrative of a society of equal citizens is pervasive. That ideal of abstract universalism has largely shaped the French approach to diversity—one of assimilation, positioned against the multiculturalism embraced in the United States or United Kingdom—and it limits the country’s ability to reckon with the intersection of race and class, in both rhetoric and practice.

“A significant part of the French narrative is that, Arabs are poor, because they’re poor, not because they’re discriminated against; blacks have lower-skilled jobs because they’re less qualified,” according to Patrick Simon, a demographer at the National Institute of Demographic Studies and a decades-long advocate for an end to “colorblind” politics. Within that framework, he explained, the government provides scholarships and access to housing based on economic need, without addressing the discrimination underlying those wealth disparities. “Racial discrimination complicates the system of inequality.”

Those disadvantages are no secret to many young people, who see cracks in the values they hear about in school—both in the myth of equal opportunity, and in daily encounters with the police. The Republican promise also clashes with the near-constant drone of media coverage that deepens stigmas about their neighborhoods—too often characterized as bastions of youth delinquency and, increasingly, Islamic radicalization. And while substantial evidence indicates that radical interpretations of the Quran have indeed gained footing in certain areas, the media too eagerly publish essentialist depictions of what are dynamic and diverse communities. In a striking example from February, France 2, a major national TV channel, retracted a 2016 report about a bar in Sevran, in Seine-Saint-Denis, that it erroneously depicted had “banned women” to adhere to strict Islamic values.

Many youth resign themselves to these relentless stereotypes. “There’s a certain fatalism that takes hold, when there’s a constant message that young people from the suburbs can’t succeed,” Mehdi Debigaderne, the deputy mayor for urban policy in Clichy-sous-Bois, told me. “The social ladder is broken.”

The school system, lauded as a guarantor of equality, tends to reproduce if not accentuate those inequalities. Students in sectors classified as “priority education” are consistently oriented toward professional tracks, and a cycle is born: Children of low-income parents are 10 times less likely to obtain a “bac scientifique”—the qualification required to pursue a university degree in math or science—than those of wealthy white-collar parents. The 2015 OECD Program for International Student Assessment, which reviews scholastic performance, indicated that French students are the most constrained by their socioeconomic backgrounds among the 71 other member countries analyzed in the study—a similar conclusion was reached nine years prior.

The glaring examples of the school system’s failure to act as a social ladder don’t seem to affect policy decision. Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer—one of the right-wing elements of the new government—has made enemies among advocates for a more egalitarian approach. One set of reforms to higher education that would increase selectivity—in France, all students who have passed the bac have historically been guaranteed university access—drew thousands of high-school students to the streets in early February, despite a snowstorm. Numerous education unions warned it would deepen inequalities. Other reforms and cuts to the education system will disproportionately hit priority-education districts. Strikes and protests are multiplying as parents and teachers demand more resources, consistent substitute teachers, and better security. Yet Blanquer has chosen instead to focus on new measures that promote French values, especially laïcité, or French secularism, in public schools, beginning, unsurprisingly, in Seine-Saint-Denis. The emphasis on laïcité in these low-income areas, home to significant Muslim populations, is not a coincidence.

“In the places where the government says Republican values are needed the most, we need to point out that the state isn’t present,” Debigaderne said. “How can we ask these people to believe in Republican values, when everything they live indicates the opposite?”

Deepening inequalities, high unemployment, and a sense of being left behind doesn’t mean that the government hasn’t tried to improve the banlieues. But decades of urban-renewal projects, Debigaderne told me, “have failed to take into account the human aspect.”

Macron has, at least rhetorically, tried to seem active on urban equality. On March 13, a promised advisory council—the members of which all work on the ground in advocating for equality—finally held its first meeting; whether the body will have the necessary means to make an impact remains to be seen. And in April, the president will reinstate emplois francs—financial incentives to companies that hire youth from “priority neighborhoods,” a designation that covers more than 1,500 neighborhoods and some 5 million people. Under his predecessor, François Hollande, the program was a failure: In its first year, only 250 young people were hired, 1,750 fewer than the government had projected. Macron’s government now says the program would generate 12,000 to 25,000 new hires by next year, in part by increasing the incentive from 5,000 to 15,000 euros per recruit. But critics primarily attribute the program’s past shortcomings to its opacity and red tape—how exactly Macron will improve its accessibility for job seekers remains unclear.

Hailed by Macron as an “indispensable element of the fight against discrimination,” people on the ground shrug at emplois francs. Debigaderne sees them as another half-measure with limited scope. “There are always some success stories from the banlieues,” he said, describing “a brain-drain effect, that dispossesses our neighborhoods of their best elements.” Rather than incentivizing businesses to cherry-pick from the top and letting larger inequalities fester, he said that the government needs to invest in the banlieues more broadly. That would entail, among other initiatives, funding training centers that would give young people the necessary skills—and social codes—to access a labor market that they think “isn’t for them.”

That is exactly what Abderrahim has been trying to do in the 112 for over a decade. “I’ve seen what a little nudging can do for kids who are convinced that they’re never going to succeed, and convince themselves that they don’t even want to,” he told me, adding that the majority of the young people he encounters aren’t even aware of the services available to them. “They need to be accompanied.”

Even if Macron’s revamped emplois francs were to achieve their goals—or if a more robust investment in the banlieues’ human capital were to emerge—the mechanisms that allow inequality to thrive will remain in place. “It won’t change the question of racial discrimination,” Simon, the demographer, insisted. “The responses are always partial—urban policy becomes a proxy for addressing ethnic and racial inequalities.”

A younger generation of activists—children and grandchildren of immigrants from former colonies—is becoming more vocal about inequality’s racial undertones, and demanding that the government take note. They increasingly criticize the French model of assimilation as one that erases, rather than celebrates, difference; some have gone further, alleging that the state itself has a hand in perpetuating racism, notably in police profiling. The political class has routinely shut down those attempts. In November, for example, an education union in Seine-Saint-Denis organized a conference to denounce institutional racism, and the minister, Blanquer, threatened to sue the union for defamation. Blanquer’s move was unprecedented, and earned him support across the political spectrum.

Blanquer’s intransigence isn’t in isolation, and France will not revise its approach to race any time soon. “The contradiction is at the heart of the Republican model,” Simon said. Yet, he explained, “the diagnostic is simple: We can’t create effective policies to fight discrimination without a tool to categorize the populations that are discriminated against.”

Some observers hoped that Macron would combine his neoliberal economic policy with a more liberal approach to societal issues—shifting away from colorblindness to officially acknowledge the role of racism in urban inequalities. It would even be good for business: A much-referenced 2016 study identified the cost of workplace discrimination over 20 years at 150 billion euros, or 7 percent of GDP. But the president has remained silent on the issue, and his ministers are advancing in full continuity with the past.

For Derkaoui, Aubervilliers’s mayor, it’s hard to be optimistic. “We’re constantly starting over,” she said. “If you’re a mayor in the banlieues, it’s an endless fight with the state, to be heard—to say, here, there’s no Republican equality.”

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