The Death of Working-Class Paris

The Death of Working-Class Paris

As the rich transform France’s capital into a piggy bank and playground, the future of the city hangs in the balance.

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Thirty-four-year old medical secretary Soumia Chohra calls her ground-floor apartment in Paris a “rathole”—which, she stresses, she means in the literal sense.

At night, Chohra says she can hear rats scurrying in the courtyard, which lies just outside the only window of her 215 square-foot flat. “They’re as big as this,” she says, drawing a line from her fingertips to a third of the way down her forearm. “They’re everywhere.”

To deal with the problem, she and her partner, a warehouse worker who earns minimum wage at the local Monoprix supermarket, have taken to sleeping with the windows closed, preferring the heat to the risk of nocturnal visitors. The two sleep on a mattress tucked away on a mezzanine accessible by ladder. Sometimes they also host her partner’s 9-year-old daughter, who sleeps on a separate mattress on the floor, just next to the entrance.

When Chohra and her partner moved in just over two years ago, they paid 790 euros a month in rent, and as of August, the rate has hit 806 euros. She feels it’s a ludicrous price for what she gets, yet such is the inescapable reality today: This is the cost to stay in the 18th arrondissement, the historically working-class district in northern Paris where Chohra grew up, now in the throes of an explosive housing boom.

“We feel like we’re living just to pay rent,” says Chohra, who’s been on medical leave from her job since last year—the result of a condition known as intracranial hypertension that produces debilitating headaches. “We can’t go out. We can’t go on vacation. We can’t go to restaurants.”

Many low-income Parisians share the feeling, hustling to make ends meet as their city has transformed into a global magnet for financial services, tourism, tech, and high-creative industries. Worse yet, many are being erased from the cityscape entirely, decamping to the sprawling suburbs in search of affordable housing or simply leaving the metropolitan area altogether.

Between 2012 and 2017, the year with the most recent available data, around 11,000 residents departed the French capital each year, with state officials projecting the population decline to continue until at least 2024. In the meantime, the share of Parisian residents who fit the traditional census definition of working class has declined from 35 percent in 1999 to just 26 percent—a stark contrast to the 51 percent of the total labor force such workers represent nationally.

Things were challenging enough before the pandemic, but with France now in its deepest recession since World War II, the exodus could grow even larger. Without a major shift in public policy or swift reversal in macroeconomic trends, some fear today’s crisis may well be the last nail in the coffin of Paris as a place where ordinary people can afford to live. In that case, France’s capital will have nearly completed its transformation into what the French call a ville musée, or literally a “museum city”: a theme park for tourists and wealthy visitors paying eternal homage to its past.

The housing crisis in Paris has been brewing for some time. Over the last decade, prices have grown by a whopping 66 percent, and last fall they even broke the symbolic threshold of €10,000 per square meter (the equivalent of around $1,090 per square foot). Costs have now climbed to a different stratosphere than in France’s other major cities—the average rate per square meter in Paris is roughly double that in Lyon and Bordeaux and around four times that in central Marseille—more closely resembling other so-called global alpha cities like Hong Kong, London, and New York.

But even when compared to such hubs of international capital, the Parisian housing market lies on the upper end of the spectrum. In its 2019 annual real estate index, which focuses on the world’s biggest cities, the Swiss investment bank UBS moved Paris into “bubble territory,” warning that housing prices had “decoupled from local incomes.” This year, the firm estimated that it would take a “skilled service worker” 17 years of work to buy a 650 square-foot flat near the city center, longer than in any other city in the report with the exception of famously cramped Hong Kong.

One of the factors fueling the explosion in prices is simple geography. While Paris proper has about three times the population of Washington, D.C., it’s packed into just 60 percent of the area of the US capital. With city limits fixed in place and the ability to construct new accommodations restricted by an already dense urban landscape, the housing supply has fallen well short of demand.

“The housing market is a market of shortage,” says Michel Mouillart, an economist at the University of Paris–Nanterre, and a spokesperson for SeLoger’s housing index, a group that hosts real estate listings and researches housing across France. “Paris doesn’t have a private housing stock that’s growing, for historical reasons. We’re not going to build over the Louvre Pyramid.”

In an environment like this, apartments tend to go to the highest bidder. And like London and New York, Paris has become a place for globe-trotting professionals to park their cash—an investment that comes with little risk and some cultural cachet to boot. The 2017 election of President Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who braved a series of mass protests to pursue business-friendly reforms on labor law, pensions, and unemployment benefits, has only reinforced the sense that the French capital is a safe haven at a time of uncertainty.

“People maybe think there’s a president who’s reassuring, there’s political stability, and it’s a good situation,” says Marc Foujols, the founder and CEO of Marc Foujols International Properties, a luxury real estate firm based in Paris. “Even if there are problems, strikes, things like that, it hasn’t really hurt the image of Paris. It’s a city linked to pleasure and entertainment. It’s well placed in Europe, and the real estate is good, so people want to treat themselves—they think there’s a good amount of money [here].”

Remarkably, prices have even continued to increase during the pandemic, albeit more slowly. According to SeLoger, prices in Paris grew 4.5 percent between August 2019 and August 2020. That rise was driven, in large part, by sustained demand from buyers at the upper reaches of the market like the ones Marc Foujols encounters.

But the spike in housing prices is also fueled by people with relatively less purchasing power, upper- and upper-middle-class households buying up apartments in sections of the city that were once largely scorned by those in their social class. These investors aren’t in the same income bracket as the high-end investors, but they’re part of the same fundamental process, according to Michel Mouillart.

“It’s not that the residents of the beaux quartiers are moving; it means those who wanted to go to the beaux quartiers are moving elsewhere,” says Mouillart. “Over time, neighborhoods that were more quote unquote working class see their prices rise with the arrival of these clients that wouldn’t have gone there before.”

That process has repeated itself many times over, swallowing up more and more space in the city’s north and northeast. Like the shift from Williamsburg to Bushwick in Brooklyn, the front lines of gentrification in Paris have gradually shifted over the last decade or so, creeping further and further into the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements, all of which were once broadly low-income neighborhoods.

Slowly but surely, this process has transformed the city. “It’s not a conjunctural movement,” says Mouillart. “It’s a [process of] displacement, a transformation of what a territory is, a sociodemographic transformation taking place over a long period of time.”

Soumia Chohra has been living in the 18th arrondissement for the last 21 years, ever since she immigrated to France from Saïda, Algeria, with her mother. When she moved out of her mother’s apartment a few years ago and began to look for a new spot with her partner, there was no doubt where she wanted to live.

“My partner said, ‘Let’s go elsewhere.’ I said to him, ‘No, it’s out of the question, I need to stay in the 18th,’” Chohra recalls. “I have my points of reference. My mother lives around the corner; my brother lives around the corner. My base is in the 18th, you know.”

Chohra went to middle school and high school in the neighborhood, growing up at the corner of Rue Doudeauville and Boulevard Barbès, which also happens to be the main north-south artery of the arrondissement. Lacking any of the cultural landmarks that make Paris famous to out-of-towners, the street’s diversity and frenetic pace of life stand in contrast to many of the neighborhoods frequented by tourists.

The boulevard begins at the Barbès Rochechouart metro stop, a partially aboveground station that towers over a busy intersection with an unfortunate—if not entirely undeserved—reputation for petty crime. As the avenue cuts its way northward, it gives way to African clothing stores, low-cost hair salons, halal butcher’s shops, an array of corner stores selling everything from cell phones and cooking utensils to yams and plantains, as well as dozens of hole-in-the-wall restaurants churning out greasy kebabs and fries well into the early morning hours. Eventually, Boulevard Barbès becomes Boulevard Ornano and ends at the official city limits—a point that is practically impossible to miss because, like nearly everywhere else in Paris, this border is marked by the imposing Boulevard périphérique, an elevated highway filled with the buzz of trucks and motorcycles.

The Périph’ famously separates Paris from its suburbs, encircling the city and serving to reinforce the socioeconomic and cultural chasm that separates its opposing sides. (In the département of Seine-Saint-Denis that borders Paris to the northeast, for example, average pay is about 60 percent the levels in the capital, while the unemployment rate is around one and a half times as high.) Within the 18th arrondissement, boulevards Barbès and Ornano fill something of a similar role. They mark a critical dividing line—in wealth, demography, and politics—signaling the existing frontiers of gentrification yet beckoning to be crossed.

Already, massive changes are underway at the Barbès metro station. On one side of the boulevard sits the flagship store of the discount department chain Tati, which plans to shutter its doors for good later this year. Founded by a Sephardic immigrant from Tunisia just after the Second World War, Tati was already struggling to compete with larger, online-based rivals, but the pandemic delivered the knockout blow. On the other side of the street, meanwhile, sits Brasserie Barbès, a four-story bar and café that opened in 2015 and managed to weather the storm of the lockdown. Featuring art-deco design and adorned with an ostentatious neon sign bearing the restaurant’s name, it offers €18 cheeseburgers and €9 cocktails, well beyond the price range of those who loiter outside its doors.

Further west of the Barbès-Ornano dividing line lies Montmartre, an early 20th century bohemian Mecca that has long since lost its rebellious aura, better known today as an international tourist hub because of the Sacré-Coeur basilica and as a coveted spot for prime real estate. On the eastern side of the thoroughfares lies a string of emphatically less scenic and more affordable neighborhoods like the one Soumia Chohra grew up in. That includes La Chapelle, a narrow mishmash of streets bounded by train tracks on three sides, an urban archipelago with precious little green space. In recent years, temporary camps for migrants have repeatedly sprung up, but so have a new crop of organic grocery stores and trendy restaurants.

Clothing boutiques and coffee shops of the Anglo-American variety have also popped up in the nearby neighborhood of La Goutte d’Or. Immortalized by Emile Zola’s novel L’Assommoir, which recounts the travails of manual laborers in late 19th century Paris, the area has managed to retain its working-class grit over the years, though its present-day residents are more likely to trace their origins to the African continent than to metropolitan France. And while white-collar professionals have gradually increased their footprint in the neighborhood, restaurants are still more likely to serve West African mafé than macarons.

Indeed, like much of the Parisian northeast, the 18th arrondissement has been forged by immigration. During the boom years following World War II—the three decades known in French as les trente glorieuses—immigrants flocked here from the Maghreb, and especially from France’s former colony of Algeria. Waves of immigration from the 1980s onward have seen an influx of residents from sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, but also from eastern Europe, giving root to overlapping micro-neighborhoods and, for those who grew up here, a dizzying capacity for cross-cultural exchange.

“I’m used to living with different nationalities, the mix, I’m used to the people, to different cultures,” says Soumia Chohra. “It’s not just French people here—there are Arabs, black people, Chinese people, people from all nationalities. I like that mix.”

That mix was not some random accident of history—it was, above all, the product of affordable housing. When Chohra arrived in the late 1990s, her mother was able to move the two of them into a 320 square-foot flat that cost her just €500 every three months. And since the apartment was built before 1948—the year major national housing legislation took effect—the law’s rental protections extended to Chohra’s mother, and price increases were restricted heavily by the state.

But apartments built after 1948, or those that tenants moved into after that law’s repeal, are not covered by the same strict price ceilings. And with subsequent rent controls lapsing and housing prices exploding over the last two decades, deals like the one Chohra’s mother found are much harder to come by today. It’s why so many are packing up and heading to the other side of the Périph’, opting to abandon Paris over putting up with the sort of cramped existence that Chohra has chosen. While Paris proper has only 2.2 million residents, the larger metropolitan area now counts more than 12 million people.

“In general, they leave,” Chohra says of her former classmates from middle and high school. “Some of the ones who are single are still here, even some who are couples, but most of them are gone.”

Transformations of this sort have already ravaged other sections of what was once working-class Paris: Belleville, the birthplace of cabaret legend Edith Piaf, a one-time hub for the Algerian National Liberation Front, and a more recent center for Chinese immigration in Paris, has seen average monthly rent prices for a 430 square-foot apartment hit €1,200. In the neighborhood of La Villette, whose soaring public housing towers once made it one of the least desirable sections of Paris, new business developments along the Canal de l’Ourcq have sent prices skyrocketing to €1,000 for a similarly sized flat. At the same time, regular police interventions have prevented migrants from setting up camps in the area for very long, helping to keep the housing market attractive.

The pandemic has also weighed on some long-term residents of these areas, like 66-year-old Esther Saadoun, who lives with her 24-year-old daughter in the 19th arrondissement. Both are now on the brink of eviction from their 500 square-foot flat.

A Jewish immigrant from Tunisia, Saadoun has lived in Paris since 1958, and has spent the past three decades operating a crêpe stand near the Gare de l’Est train station, while her daughter has taken up odd jobs to support her university studies. Prevented from working during the lockdown, Saadoun has struggled to keep up with her €900 monthly rent payments. Already behind on back-payments that at one point reached €2,000, Saadoun has been summoned by her landlord to court this fall.

“I feel like I have to leave, the rent is too high, and the neighborhood doesn’t appeal to me anymore,” says Saadoun, who sleeps on the living-room couch, leaving the bedroom to her daughter.

To be sure, Paris has long been fought over between the rich and poor, and class struggle is part of its identity. As historian Eric Hazan wrote in 2011, the city is “the great field of battle of the civil war in France between the aristocrats and sans-culottes—no matter what we may call them today.” From the revolution of 1789 to the barricades of 1848 and the Commune of 1871, and from the mass strikes of 1936 and 1968 to the Yellow Vest protests of 2018, the working poor have repeatedly claimed city streets as their own.

Of course, the moneyed classes have long had a competing sense of entitlement. In the second half of the 19th century, Georges Eugène (“the Baron”) Haussmann—perhaps the original gentrifier—razed much of the old city, replacing it with wide, tree-lined boulevards and buildings designed to house new bourgeois residents. The second half of the 20th century, meanwhile, saw the wealthy solidify their grip on the city center, as low-income residents fled to the peripheries and northeastern quadrant.

Through it all, though, working-class Paris had the benefit of continuing to exist. In today’s wave of gentrification, not only has the onslaught of capital intensified, and not only have the boundaries of affordable living been drastically shifted, but low-income people are being expunged from the city altogether.

“For now, the battle of the working class of Paris has been lost,” says Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, the founder and spokesperson of housing rights group Droit au Logement. “We don’t know what history has in store for us, but at the moment it’s clear that the well-off have taken the capital. That’s an objective reality. It’s a fact.”

One of the great ironies of the potentially irreversible wave of gentrification sweeping Paris in recent years is that it has taken place under the watch of a left-wing government. Since 2001, the Socialist Party has led the city in coalition with junior partners from the Communist Party and Greens. Under the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, reelected to her second six-year term this June, the portfolio of housing policy has been left to the Communist Party—specifically to Ian Brossat, a fiery left-winger who just celebrated his 40th birthday.

Brossat is quick to stress that much of what’s happened is outside his control. As he points out, the country’s Jacobin heritage has handed immense authority to national officials but tends to leaves local politicians with narrow margins to maneuver. “It presents advantages, but on this specific subject, it’s more of an inconvenience,” Brossat tells The Nation. “We’re in a country that’s very centralized, a lot depends on the state, and the power of municipalities is relatively restricted.”

Paris alone cannot impose restrictions on rental prices unless it gets prior authorization from the national government—and for years, it has struggled to get just that. After the landmark 1948 housing law was repealed by France’s right-wing parliamentary majority in 1986, stalwarts in the Socialist Party—then the dominant force on the left—largely abandoned the cause of rent control. Calls to reimpose price limits sat on the back burner for much of the 1990s and early 2000s.

It wasn’t until 2014, under Socialist President François Hollande, that legislators finally renewed the ability of cities to impose their own rent controls. That allowed Paris to impose limits on rent prices and rent increases between 2015 and 2017, but the authorizing law was weakened shortly after its passage and the city’s municipal regulations were eventually tossed out in court. Only since last year—after the National Assembly once again gave the green light—has rent control returned to Paris. But even this authority is fairly restricted. Rental price ceilings, which are set by regional authorities, remain relatively high, and the new law applies only to apartments rented after July 2019.

On the other hand, the city of Paris can build public housing, and that’s precisely what it’s done under Socialist leadership. Since 2001, the share of public housing in the city has increased from 13 percent to nearly 24 percent—something Brossat is quite proud of, even if he acknowledges that it’s not enough. (Esther Saadoun, for instance, tells The Nation she’s been on the waiting list for social housing since 1996.)

“This is a non-negligible success,” Brossat says. “You now have 550,000 Parisians living in social housing and these 550,000 Parisians in social housing are protected from real estate speculation. In a certain way, they’re secure in Paris.”

At the same time, the city aims to reach a nationally mandated threshold of 25 percent public housing by 2025—a goal that will almost certainly involve the purchase and conversion of private apartments and office buildings. Hidalgo’s team has also called to prioritize new social housing for those most in need, as opposed to relatively privileged residents who could more easily afford to live in private apartments.

Municipal authorities have also pushed for more power to intervene in the private market. In the most emblematic of these efforts, Ian Brossat has sought to clamp down on housing rental platform Airbnb, which he accuses of taking 30,000 apartments off the market over the last seven to eight years.

“Airbnb is not at the origins of gentrification of Paris, but it’s an accelerator of gentrification,” Brossat says. “In a city where we have little possibility to build new housing, losing 30,000 apartments is huge.”

As it stands, French homeowners in some of the most visited cities have the ability to rent out apartments on Airbnb at a maximum of 120 days per year—and the city has boosted inspections to ensure the company respects the law. (A recent ruling from the European Court of justice upheld that French law, much to Brossat’s delight.) But Hidalgo’s administration wants to go further. Between now and next summer, it plans to hold a series of citywide consultations focused on potentially lowering that number within the city of Paris to 60 or 30 days per year. The goal is to pressure the National Assembly into devolving power to the city to restrict Airbnb rentals.

“Our calculation is if tens of thousands of Parisians ask for this, the state should take action,” says Brossat, who believes shifting public opinion and the results of recent local elections—which saw Greens and Socialists flip major cities like Lyon and Bordeaux—will work in their favor.

Some critics say the Socialist administration still isn’t going far enough. For instance, housing activist Jean-Baptiste Eyraud tells The Nation the City should more aggressively make use of what’s known as the droit de preemption—its right to preempt private property sales and take over property for the city. He also says the municipality should avail itself of its right to expropriate, which is authorized under special circumstances by French law.

Brossat agrees that Paris should preempt more sales between private entities and has fought to boost the part of the city budget devoted to just that. Indeed, during Hidalgo’s first term, the budget for preemption increased from €500 million to €850 million. Brossat also says he’s not opposed to using the tool of expropriation, but that in practice, it can be hard to defend in court. (Judges must rule that any proposed expropriation is taken only as a last resort and is not “disproportionate.”) The Communist politician also adds that he’d like to have recourse to the public sector’s “right to requisition”—the right to take over unoccupied properties—but at the moment, only the national government retains that power.

“It’s pretty frustrating for an adjunct mayor of housing like me to see that buildings remain empty for years and that the state won’t activate its right to requisition,” Brossat says. “On a certain number of subjects, it would be good to give more maneuvering ability to municipalities who want it.”

All the same, any serious conversation about gentrification cannot ignore the hulking elephant in the room: the fact that the majority of the population living in the Parisian metropolitan area no longer actually lives in Paris proper. For better or worse, it now lives in the suburbs, or les banlieues.

That there is a major problem with the status quo is broadly accepted by the political mainstream. Conscious of the inequalities the city-suburb divide generates, national policy-makers have long claimed to want to better integrate the two sides of the périph, and for years, the talk yielded little action. But in 2016 these efforts finally gave birth to the long-awaited administrative superstructure of “Grand Paris,” integrating 131 different municipalities.

Driving progressive sympathies for the project is its hefty redistributive potential: Nostalgia can be alluring in a city with such rich history, but what does upholding the administrative division between Paris and its suburbs actually accomplish? Why not pool resources across the entire metropolitan area and use them to craft a more egalitarian housing system, not to mention better-functioning schools, transportation, and cultural institutions? After all, Paris itself has expanded in the past, absorbing villages like Belleville, Montmartre, and La Chapelle that were once independent, and as recently as the mid-19th century. Why not do the same today with towns like Saint-Denis, Pantin, or Clichy-sous-Bois?

One of the obstacles is a lingering cultural stigma. In the popular imagination, the low-income Parisian banlieue suffers from an association with crime and what the French dub “communitarianism,” the keeping of different ethnic and religious communities to themselves. Even someone like Soumia Chohra, who knows many on the other side of the périph, says she wouldn’t want to move there. “I would feel too isolated. They don’t have the same lifestyle. It’s not the same mentality,” she says.

A perhaps more significant roadblock to expanding city limits is political resistance. Grand Paris is currently governed by a right-wing majority that has shown little interest in further integration between the city and its suburbs. In theory, the metropole has the power to impose common housing policies, but such a decision hasn’t been taken yet.

“I’m well conscious of the fact that Paris won’t resolve the housing problems by itself,” Ian Brossat says. “But the metropole needs to be led by people who care about these socioeconomic questions. In the current balance of forces within the metropole, it’s out of the question.”

In addition to developing social housing, Brossat says, a successful Grand Paris depends on having municipalities that are prepared to shoulder the housing burden collectively, as opposed to offloading projects to certain towns and aggravating inequalities. And in the end, that sort of dream scenario, he argues, comes down to attaining political power—winning local elections and shifting priorities in town halls. While this year’s municipal elections were largely positive for left-wing parties, they also illustrated the difficulty of winning many of the middle-income suburbs that make up the broader Paris metropolitan area.

The arrival of the Summer Olympics in four years could further complicate matters. Despite the official Paris 2024 branding, a major chunk of the games and almost all of the construction will take place in the suburbs, ushering in new stadiums, fresh housing developments, and improved transit networks, but along with them, higher property values and fears of displacement. Before then, the presidential election in 2022 could also play a fundamental role in shaping the future of Grand Paris and housing policy more broadly. But the picture isn’t so bright for progressive forces at the moment: While President Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen lead early polls, the left remains divided, split between the Socialists, Greens, and left populists of La France Insoumise. In the meantime, the housing boom rolls on, and the Covid crisis looms like a lit match over the region’s smoldering inequalities.

While innumerable things have been lost with the death of working-class Paris—and historians, writers, and activists offering no shortage of melancholic reminiscence of what the city once was—there are more pressing concerns for those actually living at the bottom rung today. As Esther Saadoun puts it, she doesn’t care about whether she continues to live in Paris or moves to a nearby suburb. She just wants an affordable place to live—and, ideally, a bed to sleep in instead of the couch.

“My daughter would like to stay, but I’m OK either way,” Saadoun says. “If I can pay lower rent, that’s what counts.”

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