Arriving at an airport at the outskirts of Paris, it was a long bus ride to arrive in the centre. As we approached Paris, the low and high rises of the banlieues where only partially obscured by steel and perpex barriers that sealed off the motorway, while the leafy avenues of central Paris were on open display.
Arriving in central Paris, the first thing that you notice is the affluence. Expensive boutiques nestle between fashionable restaurants and bars. It very much reminds you of London – and not in a particularly good way. The importance of the tourist trade is clear to see, yet this is not just a show for wealthy incomers, it is clear that the wealthy of Paris live right at its core. Even in areas which are not considered particularly well-to-do, such as the area around Gard Du Nord, there is still a level of fairly uniform affluence – broken only by the occasional homeless person. Perhaps I’ve read far too much Balzac and have been influenced by the population concentration of Athens, but I was surprised how sprawling the city centre was with a great deal of space rather than the cheek by jowl nature I had assumed of Parisian life.
There is none of the visible struggle for survival: prostitution, bottle/can collecting or structural homelessness that can be seen in Athens or even on the streets of some British cities (including London). Overall it is very clean, very bright and very white. In contrast to most other cities, Paris’s innercities are its suburbs, where low wage workers, unemployed and migrant labour converge and are contained well out of the way of either tourists or the Parisian elite who care only that their street are kept clean and little about where those who facilitate that live.
The banlieus ring Paris, with the most deprived areas concentrated in the North. In 2005, they erupted into violence following the death of two ethnic minority teenagers from Clichy sous Bois, a poor suburb in the North. Chased by the police after playing football in a local field, and fearing the interrogation, detention and requirement to present identity papers that youths picked up by the police frequently face they hid in an electricity generating station. Their electrocution came in a context where Arab and African civilians faced continual police harassment. Despite the racism which led to the riots, the response only saw that continue – with Sarkozy announcing that 120 non-French citizens accused of being involved in the riots would be immediately deported, while Le Pen demanded that naturalised citizens should have their right of residency revoked should they be found to have participated in the riots.
I arrived in Clichy sous Bois, to find possibly the poshest ghetto I have ever seen – with suburban detached houses along tree lined lanes. Confused I walked on further, to find the centre of the area. One main road away from this suburban gentility was an area which for some reason reminded me greatly of Wester Hailes. Perhaps its the busy road with out of town shopping dividing it from the detached houses, or the central, rather dilapidated shopping centre surrounded by low and medium rise housing, but it had the feel of an area cut off and existing in its own little village that Wester Hailes always gives me.
Solid cuboids of various heights rose up around the shopping centre – each with boxy windows and what appeared to be corrugated iron shutters. At first sight I thought it was the French equivalent of Sytex, and they were abandoned, but on closer inspection it would appear that many simply of the inhabitants simply did not open the heavy shutters leaving them almost permanently closed. The population of the area is massively concentrated, and although ethnically diverse, had very, few white inhabitants. The shopping centre displayed none of the expensive goods or fancy cafes of central Paris. Various discount stores: for clothing, electrical goods and furniture mixed with hairdressers, small jewellery shops and a supermarket. A couple of bar/cafe/restaurants sat at the entrance, populated exclusively by men, playing cards, chatting and drinking coffee. A new playground, artificial football pitch, several local colleges and other public amenities in the local area could not disguise the manifestations of the kind of deprivation which comes of structural disadvantage. What did disguise it was that it was several miles out of the main centre of Paris, outwith the radius that most influential Parisians or visitors to the city would venture.
This is likely to be the model for London under the housing benefit changes – as lower income families are pushed out of the central areas of London into the suburbs where they are out of sight and out of mind. Once again, the streets of a major Western capital is being ethnically cleansed, which is rather ironic when you think of the increased bus journeys that the low paid and predominantly Black street sweepers will have to undertake to clean them.
Other Paris dispatches from Second Council House of Virgo