Déplacement horizontal

Déplacement horizontal

Spatial isolation and public realm deprivation in the banlieues of France


On October 27, 2005 in the eastern Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, two adolescents died at an electrical substation following a burglary and police chase. Their deaths went unexplained by the French police and catalyzed the frustrations of youth in these isolated and economically depressed suburbs, known as les cités or les banlieues, resulting in more than three weeks of intense rioting. By November 17, 2005, the confrontations in the cites had resulted in nearly 9,000 torched vehicles and 3000 arrests in 100 municipalities of France.1 Although the press reacted immediately to the riots as a clash of civilizations “…reading the events through the lens of the Palestinian intifada and the Iraqi insurgency…”,2 the lack of ethnic or religious unity in the suburbs suggests other causes. Immediately at fault is the complete spatial isolation experienced by inhabitants of these banlieues, an isolation that not only serves to prevent their access to the base of power, metropolitan urban centres, but also to deprive them of the formation of a public realm within which active political participation is possible. Using the ideas that Hannah Arendt developed in her 1958 work The Human Condition, I will analyze the state-created spatial circumstances that have contributed to the exile of entire communities from modern French society.

In order to establish the theoretical framework within which the banlieues are discussed, it is necessary to introduce several of Arendt’s concepts. Firstly, the notion that political thought is manifested through actions and speech only, an idea largely extracted from the thought of Aristotle, is crucial in this discussion.3 Speech and action are intrinsically linked, working in tandem, or not at all; speech allows men to reveal themselves, and to measure the actions of others in the world. Action without speech loses its ability to reveal a human agent and “dependent as it is upon the power of speech to illuminate its meaningfulness…” has a tendency to degenerate into violence.4 For Arendt it is imperative that speech, the most important action, occurs outside of force and violence. “Only sheer violence is mute, and for this reason violence alone can never be great.”5

The city-state as a formed entity enables the power of speech and action. This common world, or meeting ground is central to the exchange of political thought, which brings us to the next critical idea. For Arendt, political life in this public realm depends on three fundamental tenets: politics as an artificial construction, the spatial quality of politics, and the interplay of public and private. For the purposes of this paper, the first two definitions will be of most use.

Arendt’s emphasis on the artificiality of public life and of political activities in general refers to the fact that they are man-made and constructed rather than natural or given. This artificiality is to be “celebrated rather than deplored” as politics then is not the result of some natural predisposition, or inherent trait of human nature; rather, it is a “cultural achievement of the first order, enabling individuals to transcend the necessities of life and to fashion a world within which free political action and discourse could flourish.”6 Thus, political equality has a basis only in citizenship, a condition that any individual acquires upon entering the public realm, but which also must be recognized by the political institution. The ethnic identity of a political member bears no meaning on their participation. Arendt maintained that “one’s ethnic, religious or racial identity was irrelevant to one’s identity as a citizen, and that it should never be made the basis of membership in a political community.”7 This is a powerful idea that has been adopted by many nation-states, including the Republic of France, as a basis for citizenship. However, its application is sometimes unclear, as shall be discussed.

Secondly, the spatial qualities of public life are, for Arendt, of the utmost importance. All political activities must occur in a shared public realm where citizens are able to meet, and to exchange opinions and ideas. The political process is dependent on the articulation of problems from different perspectives: “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.”8 In this way, differences and commonalities can be allowed to emerge and “…become the subject for democratic debate.”9 Critical to the spatial world of politics is the participation of members in the public space; Arendt stresses direct action as a prerequisite for engagement. A collection of distinct individuals can unite to form political communities as well, not on the basis of a religious or ethnic commonality, but rather by sharing a public space and engaging in activities attributed to that space and its institutions.10 Arendt’s ideas on the spatial nature of politics are especially informative for the situation of the French banlieues, particularly when one examines the history of these troubled areas.

In the 1960s, families from all national backgrounds were “saved” from shantytowns and “rehoused” in low-income housing outside of the major metropolitan areas of France. These cites were constructed as modernist utopian experiments, built with a minimum of 500 units in combination high-rise towers and low-rise blocks, initially meant, at least according to the state, to deconcentrate urban poverty and provide social mobility.11 They centralized “…housing, commerce, education and recreation in the immediate proximity to the factories in which residents were assumed to work.”12 This assumption was predicated on the fact that foreign workers would enter the country, remain for a period of time, then return home. However, over time, immigrants from former French colonies settled in the neighbourhoods for lack of alternatives, creating large concentrations of North Africans, Turks and Senagalese people.13 Additionally, and perhaps the most politically charged move in the history of the banlieues, the cités also became emergency rehousing sites for North African immigrant workers who had begun to organize effectively in urban shantytowns as the Algerian National Liberation Front, posing a security threat to the post-colonial ambitions of the state.14 The result of this combination of relocation and settlement might be referred to as ghettos, spatially separated and detached concentrations of new immigrants.15 The French government recognized a threat to the sanctity of their economic empire and responded by removing the public realm from the Algerian immigrants. The city is essential to the creation of politics, as Kenneth Frampton discusses in this passage from The Human Condition:

The only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people. Only where men live so close together that the potentialities for action are always present will power remain with them and the foundation of cities, which as city-states have remained paradigmatic for all Western political organization, is therefore indeed the most important material prerequisite for power.16

By removing North Africans from the spatial political realm of the urban centre and relocating them to the periphery, the government effectively removed their ability to harness power. Frampton continues by discussing what he refers to as “suburban motopia” and its incapacity at creating any politically identifiable spaces, the “…impotence of an urbanized populace who have paradoxically lost the object of their urbanization.”17 This spatial segregation bears even more importance in contemporary European society, where as Alain Touraine notes, there has been a shift from a vertical organization based on class hierarchy to a horizontal organization, “where the important thing is to know if one is in the center or at the periphery.”18

The economic downturns of the 1970s created a crippling immobility in the banlieues, where severe unemployment and mass factory closures resulted in the closure of most suburban shopping centres and smaller stores. The cites were emptied and sterilized. To further exacerbate the situation, transportation infrastructure did not keep up with suburban growth, deepening the sense of separation from the city.19 Suitably, the youth of the suburbs have taken to attacking the very “motopia” criticized by Frampton. The violent demonstrations against automobiles reflects not only an attempt at punishing property, but also a symbolic destruction of the tools of mobility the suburban inhabitants invariably lack. The automobile may well represent the only chance at political participation, the entry device to pierce the public realm bubble, where the cite youth occupy the wrong side.

What was conceived of as the deconcentration of impoverished urban citizens, inadvertently resulted in the concentration of discontent. For Arendt, political space is required for the exchange and opinions and debate of differences. If those in the suburbs are unable to participate in the formal debate, another language must be prescribed that does not follow the conventions of institutionalized politics. As Shiraz Dossa remarks in his study of Arendt’s public realm “hostility to the world is characteristic of all groups existing on the periphery of society…”20 These groups become what Arendt refers to as pariahs or outcasts. “From the viewpoint of politics, the pariah is a dangerous person: his sole interests are his own well-being and that of his ethnic community.”21 Interestingly, ethnic commonalities became important: children born in France to immigrant parents cling to other common threads; strangers in their own country, they connect as pariahs instead of as French. In Arendt’s notion of the artificial construction of politics, citizenship is based on entry to the public realm and is exclusive of any other identifiable characteristics.22 This has not proven true in the banlieues. The despatialization of the political realm in the suburbs is directly related to the inability of its inhabitants to exercise speech, the most important political action. The dialogue revolving around the banlieue insurrections is descriptive.

On the sixth day of rioting in the suburbs of Paris, a BBC News report was published wherein the subheading “War of Words” discussed Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s description of the rioters as racaille, translated by the BBC as rabble, or other times as rascal.23 The term racaille however, is most often attributed to meaning “scum”, and is generally recognized as a derogatory term. It is ironic that the BBC subheading used the word “war” in its description of a verbal battle, for most wars refer to an engagement by two sides, and this battle of language is tremendously one-sided. The banlieues are distinctly separated from Arendt’s public realm where speech is necessary and encouraged. Even the French President declared that the “absence of dialogue and the escalation of disrespectful behaviour would lead to a dangerous situation.”24 The words directed at the isolated French youth are a form of “symbolic violence”, perpetrated by French politicians and journalists against the young citizens “…who are repeatedly and mistakenly described as ‘foreigners’ (étrangers) and pathologized and demonized for their purported unwillingness to ‘integrate’ into French society…” a society in which they are exposed to constant racial and spatial discrimination.25 In the continuing battle of semantics, the speech thrust into the public realm has been adapted by the youth of the cites. The term racaille has been redefined as gangsta, and much like in American hip-hop, language is manipulated to create a “…valorized anti-hero of cité subculture.”26 The rap group Suprême NTM, like many others, claims to amplify the voices of all of the youth from the cites whose rights to speech have been denied through the deprivation of participation in the public realm.27

The years pass, but all remains the same
More asphalt, less space
Necessary and vital for life
Nobody is imprisoned, but it’s as if
It’s as if France is moving forward, thinking
That by force alone it can end delinquency
Please, use your head
Blows will not solve the state of emergency
Which makes me ask myself
How much longer will all of this last
For years everything should have already exploded
Too bad our side has never been united
But you know it’s all going to end up badly
World war, you wanted it, here it is…
From now on the street will not forgive
We’ve nothing to lose for we’ve never had anything to begin with
In your place I would not sleep well
The bourgeoisie should tremble, the gangstas are in town
Not to party, but to burn the place down…
But why, why are we waiting to set the fire

—Suprême NTM, “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend” (1995)28

Hip-hop lyrics are only somewhat effective; obviously, the severe content of the songs has fallen on deaf ears in the political establishment. NTM clearly articulate the problems of public space, lack of unity and economic depression. Their call to arms, so to speak, for the racailles to start fires demonstrates “the vehement yearning for violence…a natural reaction of those whom society has tried to cheat of their strength.”29 For Arendt, this deprivation results in the imprisonment of men in the subjectivity of their own experience. “The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.”30 So what becomes of the marginalized citizens exiled to the periphery if they are excluded from presenting their perspectives in the political arena? Desperation. Monosemantic vision. Violence.

For Arendt, necessity and violence are intrinsically linked. “The realm of need is inherently violent in its urgency: its satisfaction cannot be long delayed if survival is on the human agenda.”31 The cite youth exhibit a rage stemming from “…lifetimes of rampant unemployment, school failure, police harassment, and everyday racist discrimination that tends to treat them generally as racaille or Sarkozy’s insult—regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.”32 The youths of these suburbs use collective action to express their desire to move to the centre. Alain Touraine, speaking again of the horizontal society, uses the term “social void” to express the hopelessness of these people, a large number of under-twenty year olds who grew up in impersonal places created for them, and were then labelled as excluded.33

However, the violent riots, far from provoking a change in the French government, produced the opposite effect, increasing spatial deprivation and further silencing speech. After nearly two weeks of confrontation on the urban periphery, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin implemented a state of emergency granting prefects the ability to establish regional curfews and the Interior Minister the ability to close public spaces, perform house searches and arrests without warrants and censor the press. Appropriately, the law was first created in 1955 in response to the Algerian liberation movement and has only been enacted twice previously, during similar riots in the 1980s.34 The government also developed a propensity for decimating entire bars of social housing developments in the banlieues, presumably in an attempt to absolve the situation by destroying the physical manifestations of the projects.35 This only served to increase overpopulation problems as empty units were not redistributed to the suburban poor, already compressed into diminutive spaces designed to prevent the expansion of families (many of which were falsely assumed to practice polygamy).36 The social questions of immigration then “…crystallize in the urban setting which becomes the space where tension and violence prevail as modes of collective expression.”37 For Arendt however, violence does not serve as an effective method of political action.

But while violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it. From this results the by no means infrequent political combination of force and powerlessness, an array of impotent forces that spend themselves, often spectacularly and vehemently, but in utter futility…38

Arendt’s observations on the relationship between violence and power seem as applicable to the rioting French youth as to the French civil machinery whose police force insists on shutting down front stoop congregations and performing “random” identity checks on French youth, if not engaging in questionable incidents of excessive force.39 France has no better chance at quelling the social problems of the banlieues by institutionalizing civil war than do the gangsta car torchers seeking to further their cause by damaging property. Again one recognizes the muted futility of violence.

The solution to this demanding situation is far more complex than that of solely spatiality; changes to the French “integration mission” approach to immigration and a societal shift in the perception of first-generation French have to occur. It is undoubted however, that spatial integration is critical to these changes. The youth of the banlieues, and indeed their parents, must be invited to participate in the common world, to speak and to act in a public realm where all parties are able to put forward their concerns, challenges, and differences. Differences are in fact the public realm’s greatest strength:

For though the common world is the common meeting ground of all, those who are present have different locations in it, and the location of one can no more coincide with the location of another than the location of two ob jects…Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position.40

Only the restoration of the political arena and its ensuing discourse can begin the revival of speech and action, and slow the onslaught of frustrated violence. France is in no way alone in its disintegration of active political life. One must hope that the severity of its situation serve as a lesson to every nation-state of the world in considering the spatial political realm of the public.

  1. Paul A. Silverstein & Chantal Tetreault. “Postcolonial Urban Apartheid.” Riots in France (New York: Social Sciences Research Council, http://riotsfrance.ssrc.org/Silverstein_Tetreault/. June 11, 2006) 3.

  2. Silverstein & Tetreault, 3.

  3. Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958) 25.

  4. Peter Fuss. “Hannah Arendt’s Conception of Political Community.” Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World (New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc, 1979) 159.

  5. Arendt, 25.

  6. Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves. “Hannah Arendt.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2006 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2006/entries/arendt/.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Arendt, 53.

  9. d’Entreves.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Silverstein & Tetreault, 3.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Riva Kastoryano. Negotiating Identities: States and Immigrants in France and Germany. Translated by Barbara Harshav (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) 69.

  14. Silverstein & Tetreault, 3.

  15. Kastoryano, 69.

  16. Arendt, 179.

  17. Frampton, 105.

  18. Kastoryano, 73.

  19. Silverstein & Tetreault, 4.

  20. Shiraz Dossa. The Public Realm & The Public Self: The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1989) 98.

  21. Ibid, 98.

  22. d’Entreves.

  23. BBC News. “Riots erupt in more Paris suburbs”. BBC News Europe November 2, 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4395294.stm.

  24. Catherine Wihtol de Wenden. “Reflections ‘À Chaud’ on the French Suburban Crisis.” Riots in France. New York: Social Sciences Research Council, June 11, 2006. http://riotsfrance.ssrc.org/Wihtol_de_Wenden/.

  25. Silverstein & Tetreault, 6.

  26. Ibid, 7.

  27. Ibid, 2.

  28. Ibid, 1.

  29. Arendt, 182.

  30. Ibid, 53.

  31. Dossa, 53.

  32. Silverstein & Tetreault, 3.

  33. Kastoryano, 74.

  34. Silverstein & Tetreault, 2.

  35. Bernard Girard. Banlieues: Insurrection ou ras le bol? (Le Kremlin-Bicêtre Cedex: Les points sur les i éditions, 2006) 56.

  36. Ibid, 57.

  37. Kastoryano, 68.

  38. Arendt, 181.

  39. Silverstein & Tetreault, 3.

  40. Arendt, 52.