Geographies of violence: The intersection of race and class in France’s banlieues

Depicted as inhospitable zones of deprivation, deviance, and difference, the construction of the banlieue is rooted in the hierarchies of race and class. While the term’s literal translation is ‘suburb’, it has become associated with low-income housing projects (HLMs) home to immigrant populations. What these sites of segregation reinforce is that the indices of social difference have tangible (and even fatal) consequences for the marginalised members of society – a reality that unsettles the false promises of European liberal democracy.


While comparable to America’s ghettos and Britain’s sink estates, banlieues have not always constituted regions of extreme exclusion. Amidst the damage caused by total war by 1945, they resulted from the government’s desire to institute social housing on a major scale. In a prioritisation of quantity over quality, thousands of units were constructed on the periphery of French cities between 1945 and 1975. Though initially the preserve of lower-middle-class French citizens who travelled into metropolitan zones for work, this began to change in the 1970s amidst high unemployment and changing government strategy.


In an attempt to eliminate bidonvilles (shanty towns) occupied by immigrants, such groups were increasingly relocated to peripheral areas of poor housing and meagre job prospects. This structural racism has had profound social consequences: while by 1990 European nationals had an unemployment rate of 11%, the figure reached 27% for North Africans. Underfunded and neglected, these zones of disadvantage became branded as quartiers difficiles – problem neighbourhoods – in a way that served to create a cycle of marginalisation, crime, and a lack of opportunity.


Problematised by the French government as ‘urban sensitive’ and ‘high risk’ zones, banlieues lack the public resources and social provisions to thrive. For example, in Seine-Saint-Denis teachers are absent more often than anywhere else in France, and it is almost two times less likely that a substitute teacher will be found. Given that most projects have a young population, this creates a problematic situation in which criminal activity is naturalised.


The pervasiveness of juvenile delinquency in France’s ‘problem neighbourhoods’ makes vandalism and violence a permanent feature of the banlieue landscape – something that features in the public imagination as an emblem of disorder. The state responds in a way that is notoriously insufficient and profoundly brutal: deploying small forces with the least experienced officers to such areas, violent clashes between the police and the people are incessant. Ultimately, law enforcement has repeatedly prevailed over peace-keeping.


The banlieue has become infamous for its proclivity for rioting; the imagery of smouldering cars and swathes of youths in balaclavas has pockmarked the French media for decades. For example, 2005 witnessed the invocation of emergency laws, curfews, and waves of police units in response to BME youths’ rebellion following teenager fatalities in a police chase. What underlies these instances of violence – whether in 1979, 1991, or 2005 – is an unsettling story of institutional racism and marginalisation.


Aïssa Ihich. Mohamed Bahri. Abdelkadher Bouziane. Habib Muhammed. These young men constitute only a fraction of those killed unlawfully – and brutally – by the French police in custody and on the street. Such familiar narratives reflect that the death of George Floyd, which stimulated international BLM protests, can be situated in a long history of violence against minoritized citizens in seemingly democratic states.


While ensuing riots, resulting in more untimely deaths and destruction, have reflected the culmination of a generation’s frustration, their villainization in the media has further entrenched banlieusards’ folk devil status. As police officers continue to brand immigrants as trouble-makers and terrorists, and as supervision of the police remains inadequate, the cycle of violence which underpins these race relations will remain.


The banlieue has become a journalistic category indicative of a broader social paranoia about the ‘dangerous’ presence of marginalised Others in French society. In addition to the damning media accounts which depict young people in the banlieue as ‘scum’, political discourse in France reinforces racist stereotypes and othering tactics. This is evident in the activity of the far right in France under Le Pen’s National Rally – a party openly proud of its vitriolic racism and xenophobia. With a significant margin of votes in elections since 2002, their problematic construction of immigration has strengthened the state’s draconian measures and reinforced a hostile sentiment to BME communities. This dampens the hope of a public reckoning with France’s problematic history of exclusion.


Banlieusards have not merely passively accepted such labelling as valid. Films such as Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) give voice to young people’s frustrations as they battle systemic discrimination, forge meaningful friendships, and navigate a hostile society. With banlieues constituting multicultural zones of interaction, language is one way in which people have resisted the marginalisation of their identities. Through le verlan, a form of language involving syllabic inversion and the borrowing of phrases from a variety of languages, young people are able to construct a ‘third space’ of interaction defined in their own terms. Featuring heavily in contemporary music by artists like Grand Corps Malade, banlieusards have creatively carved out sites of resistance against the oppressive systems they confront on a daily basis.


More broadly, the banlieue retains a potent symbolism that exposes the fallacy of French multiculturalism. Its history is intertwined with that of French colonialism, whose legacy is painful and enduring. While the call to previous French colonial subjects following the Second World War sought to utilise their labour for reconstruction, the state’s prevailing institutional racism is reflected in the persistent undervaluing of non-white bodies.


This biopolitics of race gets to the heart of liberal governance’s paradox: despite a recourse to common humanity, liberalism’s promise is contingent upon whiteness. Expressed in Mills’ racial liberalism and the racial contract, the State’s ‘protective’ monopoly of violence and distribution of civil liberties have always depended upon race. The banlieue is therefore part of a story of internal colonisation, and ultimately attests to the centrality of markers of difference in modern European states. France must transcend its silences and implicit assumptions about the deeply embedded structural problems it continues to perpetuate. Without this public reckoning, the cycles of deprivation and violence will define life in the banlieue for years to come.


Featured image: Erkan Kidar on Unsplash.

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