Suburban Riots in Paris and the Bigger Picture

On October 27, 2005 two French youths of foreign descent were electrocuted in an attempt to escape police in the suburb of Clicly-sous-Bois. Their deaths led to three weeks of riots, as destitute teens from suburban housing projects around Paris damaged 9,000 cars and created over 200 million Euros in damage.

Subsequent riots in November of 2007 were even more violent in nature. Again consisting of angry suburban youths, the rioters employed shotguns, gasoline bombs, and rocks against policemen, eighty of whom were injured. Both riots were attributed to social exclusion and racism in the ethnic suburban pockets of Paris.

A Recent Riot in the Parisian Suburbs

The suburbs of Paris were so unstable that France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy entirely avoided the periphery after his presidential campaign in 2007. The events placed Parisian suburbs on the global radar, but those with knowledge on the subject knew better. The problems with suburban Paris had brewed for decades—even to the time of Napoleon III.

***

In the mid 19th century, Napoleon—with the help of Baron Haussmann—famously rebuilt Paris with wide boulevards and luxurious apartments. The project’s main goal was to create a magnificent capital with grand appeal. Yet there was an aftershock felt throughout the lower class—the city of Paris was now an unwelcoming city. Property values and rents skyrocketed as the poor were forced out of the city in droves. Shantytowns were erected in mass numbers on the periphery. Haussmann himself noted that “along the horizon, against the sky, the round and square brick chimneys vomit clouds of boiling soot into the clouds… barely passing over the flat roofs of the workshops covered with tar paper and tin.”

 An Exhibition Poster Showcasing Bidonvilles

The shantytowns would eventually be called bidonvilles, after the French work bidon–meaning metal oil drum. These drums were used as building materials in many of the houses. Factories and opportunities for unskilled labor followed—in those industries deemed too unsavory for the grand capital. Steel and chemical production became synonymous with suburban life as the industrial revolution hit France in the following decades.

Much of the 20th century followed a similar path. The influx of poor immigrants after both World Wars settled into the suburbs. By the 1960s, the suburban population of Paris was double that of the city center. The majority of the population still lived in bidonvilles, where overpopulation, poor infrastructures, and health concerns plagued working-class Parisians.

A government sponsored  housing initiative was finally implemented, as large buildings called grand ensembles were erected in the suburbs. Architects and overseers stretched funds while minimizing surface areas and extra amenities in the apartments. Construction and maintenance was uniformly poor. Many were planned far from schools, transportation, and employment.

Grand Ensembles

Grand ensembles still dominate much of the suburban skyline. Unemployment ranged from twenty to thirty percent in the various grand ensembles, which carry a stigma of social immobility. True to form, Parisians in the city center gross an annual income 300% higher than their suburban counterparts.

The riots of recent years are thus far from surprising. A high level of discontent is shared by most suburban dwellers towards the Parisian elites and government officials. Indeed, this sentiment is relatively common in poorer areas around the world—justified or not—and does not always incite riots. Yet within the Parisian suburbs, French citizens and foreign nationalists still compete over jobs and living space—all while living in housing projects that are notoriously small and oppressive. These suburbs also lack the educational and cultural outlets of more affluent areas. In many ways, the deck is stacked against the majority of Parisian suburban dwellers.

***

In revisiting the riots, President Sarkozy has created a project deemed Greater Paris to modernize the surrounding suburbs. While questions remain over funding and leadership of each area, the goal is to destroy the invisible wall between Paris and its suburbs by creating better housing projects, and more importantly begin to focus on business development and construction beyond the 2 million Parisians who live in the inner city.

The president—admitting to bias on inner city improvements in years past—is seeking to extend efforts to all 12 million residents in the biggest alteration of Paris since the Haussmann era. The initial steps include a ninety mile automated rail system that will encircle Paris, providing easier transport from suburbs to both downtown and the two major airports. Tentative plans to alter suburbs with the utilization of skyscrapers and green spaces have also been proposed.

Whether these proposed measures will become a reality, much less alter the existing landscape of Parisian suburbs, is yet to be determined.

-Matt Milloway

**author’s note: The housing tendencies of Parisians have shifted in the 21st century, as data reveals an increased preference for home ownership—in a city that remains 70% renters. Gated communities and American-style subdivisions are growing in the suburbs, providing a contrast to the atmosphere described in this article. While these changes are noteworthy, the suburbs of Paris still lag behind the city center in terms of income, property ownership, and infrastructure. For a closer look at the history of suburbanization in Paris, read this post.   
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One Comment on “Suburban Riots in Paris and the Bigger Picture”

  1. Lenny
    September 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Nice overview — exactly what I was looking for!

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