If French President Emmanuel Macron wants to genuinely integrate migrant and minority neighborhoods, he will have to first convince the French elite to share power.

A plan to save the French Banlieues


French President Emmanuel Macron has entrusted Jean-Louis Borloo, the former Minister for City and Urban Renewal, with the task to draw up a plan to save neighborhoods (banlieueson the peripheries—physically, socially and economically—of French cities.

While he was running for president, Emmanuel Macron proclaimed the will to foster new French talent, including from within the banlieues. This came across as very naive, as if Macron has forgotten that the French elite is not interested in sharing—or giving any power to—grassroots initiatives from the banlieues.

Of course, as a very strong-willed person, Jean-Louis Borloo, pledged a $59 billion investment in these areas to “achieve the urban renewal starting at the end of 1980s.”

But housing is just one issue amidst a host of other challenges. 

What about unemployment, for example? Some neighbourhoods face up to a 40 percent unemployment rate in comparison to the 10 percent national average.

 In 2008, the Sarkozy government launched “Emplois francs” a measure which incentivised companies to recruit residents from the banlieues by offering them government funding. Last week, Macron’s team revived this policy – expedient, yes, but definitely not innovative.

It is clear that the French elite has both failed to grasp the reality of these issues and also have a serious lack of imagination as to how to move forward.

This is nothing new.

Political “attention” toward these areas dates back to 1977. The first riots took place in 1981 in Les Minguettes, a neighbourhood close to Lyon. In 2005, the most important revolts broke out in hundreds of French inner cities, in the aftermath of the deaths of Zyed and Bouna. 

Between these two events, nothing really changed, except for the French elite’s commitment to fueling discrimination against banlieue residents.

Racism and discrimination plague the French system and undermines every action led by French authorities to desegregate France.

In France, ethnic and social determinism is a rule. A survey, published in 2016, pointed out (for the umptheenth time), that a 30 year old PHD student has 22 percent less chance to be recruited if he comes from the “banlieues”.

Successive governments have been out of touch with reality, and even worse, they have no basis of experience for their claims.

In 2005, Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior, claimed in Argenteuil (a suburb in the north of Paris) that “he’s going to clean up riffraff with a Karcher vacuum.”

Once elected as President of France in May 2007, Sarkozy chose Fadela Amara, a grassroots activist, to draw up a plan for the neighbourhoods. 

Her “Marshall Plan” did not bring the support of the entire ministry. Even though she received a lot of media coverage, Fadela Amara’s work was never implemented by banlieue inhabitants and French people with migrant backgrounds. Nicolas Sarkozy was not only mistaken in his selection of the representative but he underestimated the disregard for elites within the banlieues.

This disconnect is still the prevailing dynamic today and Jean-Louis Borloo seems to be aware of it – and spoke to this point last Friday when he said, “Elites are unconcerned when it comes to the banlieues.”

While Macron’s discourse about these committees may be positive, it’s a different story behind the scenes.

This year in March, elected neighborhood representatives and associated stakeholders presented their committee's work to Minister of Territorial Cohesion, Jacques Mezard - bringing to a close the meeting of the 10 committees that were formed to facilitate Jean-Louis Borloo’s mission.

One representative privy to the meeting said, “The only time we detected a flash of interest across his face was when his dog came into the room.”

"Diversity" as a term, signals to the elite the shortcomings of these neighborhoods, which entitles them to shove and impose their own strategic vision on them. Who better than the concerned to provide the impetus for change? Moreover, how is “empowerment” or “community organizing” (concepts that have been fought for in the United States) being used against these communities?

The report Marie-Helene Bacque and Mohamed Mechmache delivered to the Minister Delegate to the City in July 2013 asked for an operational "power to act" for the inhabitants. 

History shows us that this sort of rhetoric is not met with institutional commitments and policies, and instead, the recommendation tend to get declined, according to sociologist of city politics Thomas Kirzsbaum.

Kirzsbaum identifies that the responsibility for these failures is within the authority's refusal to politicise the "social demands" of inhabitants. Especially, the institutions, according to him, have a negative view of neighborhoods that "self-organise" outside of the establishment. 

The struggle for a balance of power is deep. Emancipation, yes, but not too much.

Perpetuating the system

These commissions raise questions around the political will and capacity for action and change. What can Emmanuel Macron really do?

He, who has rendered obsolete the cleavage of the political left and right, does not seem to be able to carry the weight necessary to meet the challenge within a system that produces and perpetuates structural segregation.

With 5 million living in these “priority neighbourhoods”, the issue may appear to be minor to some. However, the issue reaches far beyond these neighborhoods because the difficulties encountered by their inhabitants do not stop at the territorial borders – the Chernobyl cloud occurs but only once.

The residents of these buroughs have to navigate through various channels to present themselves to French society. Geographical discrimination, certainly, comes into play, as well as discrimination based on names and religion. This forms a structural and systemic segregation which stretches to employment, housing, and the overall image of the neighborhoods, and its inhabitants. Stigmas and stereotypes precede a resident of the banlieue before they have even entered the room.

But, as we often forget, these neighborhoods are the frontline of France, and in many ways the inhabitants of the banlieues have emancipated and reinvented France without any institutional contribution.

In Tourcoing, Emmanuel Macron thanked Jean-Louis Borloo, former Minister of the city, for “putting his gloves back on to help in the battle.” But the real battle needs to take place in the ranks of our elite, where the immobility of French society takes root.

After 40 years of failed policies it is time to tackle the problem on an institutional level. Because neighborhoods are worth it. Even if the French elite ignores this point.

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