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The Outer City: Laïcité and Lack in France’s Postcolonial Banlieues

Mural of three jazz musicians on a tan brick wall

“Territories have geographic, economic, political, and cultural centers, and suburbs are their nerve endings. They are as fragile as any entity that has grown too quickly; they nourish fantasy and reinforce a good number of questions concerning our time.”
– Cyrus Cornut, Voyage En Peripherie (Journey on the Outskirts)

A month after 9/11, a soccer match was held in Paris between France and Algeria. It was October 2001, but this was the first face-off between the two countries since Algerian independence in 1962. Yet, the game became monumental for another reason. It was cut short when thousands of North African-French youths stormed the field, booing and some chanting, “Bin Laden!” [1].

Years later, Fouad Ben Ahmed recalled the event in an open letter he wrote to then-President François Hollande, following the 2015 attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. (That year, two brothers forced their way into the newspaper offices, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others in a shooting spree claimed by ISIS). In his letter, Ben Ahmed identified himself as a banlieue resident and addressed his community’s joblessness and collective withdrawal. “The problem was before our eyes,” he wrote. “But instead of asking good questions, we chose stigmatization, refusal of the other. The split was born on that day, the feeling of rejection by the political class, when we could have asked other questions: What’s wrong? What’s the problem?”

Forty one year-old Ben Ahmed liaises between government and residents in Bondy, part of the notorious banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis. The French word ‘banlieue’ simply refers to a suburb, but in recent years it has taken on new meaning, understood to encompass the perceptions of violence and dereliction surrounding Paris’ peripheral social housing developments and those who live in them. Against the American “inner city,” relegated to certain spaces within the urban core, the banlieue can be seen as the “outer city,” cast outside the central Parisian rim. Out of view from the Eiffel Tower and Louvre Carousel, concrete slabs in Brutalist style comprise the banlieue skyline; these are the rent-controlled cités, overwhelmingly peopled by North African and Middle Eastern immigrants and their French-born descendants.

Questions of Justice

In what might today be dubbed Burkini-Ban-Era-France, many forces thus complicate the stigmas and realities attached to everyday banlieue life. On June 8, a draft of the government’s new counterterrorism law was leaked in Le Monde. Many feared it might make standard what were previously considered exceptional police powers: Human Rights Watch soon reported that innocent people could arbitrarily be relegated to one commune, subjected to unfair surveillance, and prohibited from contacting friends and family.

My interviewees in the banlieue of La Courneuve identified multiple other sources of grief that residents consider to stem from militant national attitudes toward them: repeated difficulties in getting hired or interviewed with an Algerian-sounding last name and battles with the legality of religious dress in public, among others. One who prefers to remain anonymous noted that in these situations of direct injustice, “crime is either forgiven or forgotten.”

Questions of Space

Almost ironically, the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City was signed by more than 350 European cities in the banlieue of Saint-Denis 17 years ago. As such, questions of justice here become entangled with those of city planning and spatial politics. Since the mid-1980s, the banlieues have been “sensitive neighbourhoods” targeted by the Développement Social des Quartiers (DSQ), or Neighborhood Social Development plan. In La Courneuve, rehabilitation efforts have been physical: buildings have been refitted, apartments have been remodeled. City-sponsored computer workshops, women’s groups, music clubs, and afterschool programs have been given space. But urbanist Loïc Waquant says these are “little more than band-aids on gaping social wounds” [2].
Certainly, spatial segregation has also has been widely correlated with economic wounds. However, anthropologist Beth Epstein warned against reductive assumptions here—the RER has five express lines connecting Paris to its suburbs, and the 7 train runs from the city center to La Courneuve. “There are transport networks,” she said, “They can be long and crowded, but in truth the difficulty isn’t getting into Paris; it’s getting elsewhere on the periphery.” If someone lives in Gennevilliers and wants to work in Clichy, they have to go into the city and back out again. The ideological space separating banlieue and City of Light is vast, however. For many, it feels impossible to bridge—some have never gone into Paris, others have made the trip once or twice. They have a host of fears: discrimination, exclusion, poor treatment based on their clothes or accented slang. The 2001 soccer match between France and Algeria still remains in collective memory.

From memory to recognition

Algeria, of course, was France’s major settler colony, and this history weighs heavily on banlieue neighborhoods. Labor migration of Algerians to France was an established component of the colonial economy; prior to independence in 1962, Algerian migrants were not leaving one country to enter another, since they were French nationals. Independence did not come until after an eight-year war and 700,000 casualties, but despite the loss of life and long engagement, the story of decolonization has been deeply repressed. To start, “Battle of Algiers” was banned in France for five years after its 1966 release. The film acknowledges the 200 deaths that occurred at the hands of French police during demonstrations by pro-independence Algerians in Paris and its suburbs in 1961. Bodies were literally thrown off bridges into the Seine, but it took forty years for France to officially acknowledge this as a crime against humanity, and many hold that it remains barely mentioned in schools.

One Frenchwoman in her 30s said she did not learn about the Algerian war until the fifth grade. This did not come from course material: she found out, with “shock,” while watching television with her parents. A Syrian-Frenchman at the École Normale Supérieure, who confidentially told me he does not support the French state, gave me a list of textbooks to glance through so I could see how history is represented. “In the same public schools where veiling is outlawed,” he said, “there is no mention of France’s colonial empire.” He also noted that there is logic in the fact that urban unrest would be met with surprise from a public never taught the gravity of its nation’s history. “Banlieue kids look like thugs exploding for no reason—people don’t fully understand where their anger comes from.”

To inform his explosive New Yorker report, “The Other France,” George Packer spoke with British scholar Andrew Hussey. Hussey believes that turmoil in the banlieues is “one more front in the long war between France and its Arabs, especially Algerians.” Packer quotes him saying that, “The kids in the banlieues live in this perpetual present of weed, girls, gangsters, Islam. They have no sense of history, no sense of where they come from in North Africa, other than localized bits of Arabic that don’t really make sense.” One resident I spoke with, a 25 year-old Cameroonian-Frenchman who grew up in La Courneuve, holds a less-negative view about how France treats its pan-African immigrants. “I mean, I grew up in the hood,” he said. “But it made me grow up fast—it made me a man. I’m glad I come from where I come from.”

Epstein, too, diverges from Hussey’s outlook. She brought up federal recognition of the war as a crime against humanity and an official plaque now that now hangs in remembrance of the drownings on the Seine as evidence of progress. “Much of French life happens through symbolism anyway, so these things matter,” she said. “But in many ways, France has not gotten away from its ‘civilizing mission.’”

The problem of the scarf

Epstein was touching on debate over religious dress in the public sphere. Underscoring it is a 2004 law that prohibits clothing clearly indicating a pupil’s religious affiliation in public schools. Anthropologist John Bowen has written that “although worded in a religion-neutral way, everyone understood the law to be aimed at keeping Muslim girls from wearing headscarves.” His book explains that the law was based on hearings which decided that radicalism, trends toward communalism, and the “oppression of women in the poor suburbs” depicted grave dangers to French society and laïcité, its tradition of secularism.

An obvious question—among many—thus appears: Do those who legislate against headscarves really care whether women in the banlieue are oppressed? Most people I spoke to were not convinced. One cited Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, in which Lila Abu-Lughod asserts that “representation of the unfreedom of others that blame the chains of culture incite rescue missions by outsiders.” So how is one to make sense of laïcité and the people targeted by laws passed in its name today? And more broadly: can the French government simultaneously combat terror and the scapegoating of innocent people for it? Both the public perception and state treatment of banlieue Muslims are entangled in a geopolitical War on Terror that makes the “outer city” incredibly complex—spatially, culturally, historically. The 2001 soccer match is underscored by the “scarf ban,” as is the confusion around urban riots that do not seem justified because colonial history is under-taught, and security policy that subjects poor, ordinary people to unjust surveillance.

Nonetheless, Radia Bakkouch of local multicultural organization Coexister remains optimistic. Her nonprofit focuses on uniting individuals from diverse backgrounds who Bakkouch says would not have known each other otherwise in France today. Like the age-old “COEXIST” bumper sticker, its logo contains a crescent, a cross, and a Star of David. Its slogan: « EducationJeunesse (youth) Laïcité. »

“I’m hopeful because [newly-elected President Emmanuel] Macron has the same line of thought as we do on laïcité,” she said. “He knows that religion can have a positive impact on education, that there is a secular way to raise awareness on religious diversity in schools.” Perhaps the task now—for teachers, politicians, civilians—is finding that way and implementing it. The threat of terror in France does not excuse an entire people being treated as a legal and social anomaly at odds with Republican values.

[1] George Packer, “The Other France” (The New Yorker, 2015).
[2] Loïc Waquant, Urban Outcasts (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).
Based on research conducted July-August 2017 with oversight from the International Urban Development Association and funding from the Gallatin Global Fellowship in Human Rights.