Seine Saint Denis outside Paris: “From the social and economic exclusion of the banlieues has come some of France’s iconic moments of inclusion”
A “religion that is in crisis all over the world today”. This is President Emmanuel Macron’s framing of Islam, with almost 6 million adherents in France.
His rhetoric, in a speech on October 2, accompanied plans for the strengthening of secularization laws. He coined the term “Islamist separatism” to claim indoctrination of youth across France by Muslims, whose “radical vision of their religion takes control of the local population”.
The timing and direction of these comments failed, perhaps intentionally, to acknowledge the actual problems that face France today — problems, such the wage gap, economic inequality, and concerns about personal health care, that fueled protests in 2019.
As the nation heals its wounds after the horrific murder of school teacher Samuel Paty and the killing of a sacristan and two worshippers in a Nice church, the fundamental cause is not “Islamic Separatism”. Any dynamic of religion is woven into decades of societal and economic inequalities and segregation, disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities living in some of the most impoverished parts of France.
“Crime, Unemployment, and Muslims”
Many of France’s suburbs, the banlieues, are overcrowded, including those outside Paris, Marseille, and Lyon. They are synonymous with crime, unemployment, and poverty. While headlines surrounding the high-rise HLM housing (Habitation Loyer Modere) and banlieues often emphasize Islamic separatism and social divisions, the issues of integration and conformity have been neglected by the Republic’s officials for decades.
Lack of opportunity and funding have resulted in poor education and lower standards of living. Seine Saint Denis, located in the Ile-de-France region of Paris and known to locals as 93, is the poorest part of mainland France, according to Insee, the country’s centre for national statistics.
Of the 36 grand housing estates built in the Paris region, 28 of them were built in Saint Denis. When they were established in 1954, they were filled by people “repatriated” from Algeria and from the Caribbean, amid the Government’s fears of insurgency. Youth were brought en masse into Saint Denis and the Il-de-France.
Across the country, and particularly in Paris, attitudes towards many of these banlieues have become “pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants”. For many Parisiens, “the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims”.
From Welcome to Stigma
Once upon a time, immigrants were welcomed into Paris. With shortages of labour, namely in metallurgy and construction, from the loss of life in World War II and a declining birth rate, France looked to its empire for assistance with reconstruction. The number of Algerians alone doubled to 740,000 by 1975.
Seine Saint Denis was host to the majority of Parisien migration, with about 1 in 4 inhabitants, predominantly from North and West Africa, born outside France.
But as Paris grew — 50,000 more residents per year from 1946, with a population of 2.85 million by 1954 — there was pressure on housing. Decrepit estates rendered more than 100,000 accommodations uninhabitable.
Jean Marie Le Pen’s Front National, founded in 1972, seized upon the issue to lay blame on immigrants from France’s former North African colonies, linking the stigma to the specter of an Islamic threat. Although a half-century later, the message is similar, albeit with Le Pen’s daughter Marine at the head of a Front rebranded as the Rassemblement National (National Rally).
In the 2017 Presidential election, Marine recycled her father’s “Keeping France for the French”. Policies included “priority to French people over non-nationals in jobs, housing, and welfare”.
Le Pen was sounded defeated by Macron in the second-round ballot, but ahead of the next election in 2022, the French President is looking to his right amid the social and economic problems and pressure from the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests. movement.
Having risen from the centre, with the creation of the En Marche movement, Macron is now matching the rhetoric of European popular leaders. If problems cannot be addressed effectively, support relies from turning one group of citizens against another.
Not All Doom and Gloom
But from the social and economic exclusion of the banlieues has come some of France’s iconic moments of inclusion.
In 1998, “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White, and Arab) won football’s World Cup to France for the first time. The European Championship followed in 2000. Zinedine Zidane, born to Algerian in the Marseille suburb of La Castellane — an area previously tagged “high crime and unemployment — won the Balon D’or award for the World’s best player.
In 2018, with a team even more diverse Les Bleues won their second World Cup, defeating Croatia in the final. Of the 23-man squad, seven were Muslim and 14 were of African descent. Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, and N’golo Kante all grew up in the Islamic households of immigrant parents in Il-de-France — Mbappe and Pogba in Seine Saint Denis.
From the banlieues have come some of contemporary France’s most successful musicians. Mohamed Sylla (MHD) boasts two platinum albums. At Coachella in 2018, his show featured the influences of Ivorian ambianceurs and Congolese sapeurs.
“Both Achievement and Challenge”
The hostile relationship between France and its former colonies sheds light on Macron’s statements with their sentiment of superiority. But from past division and current tension, there is hope if the true problems of societal and economic struggles are recognized and confronted. This is not just healing from acts of terror but seizing the opportunity to tweet perennially-neglected wounds in the country’s biggest cities.
As the banlieues and in particular Seine Saint Denis are celebrated for their talents in sports and arts, the talent points to a true fulfillment of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité and of national unity. While French Muslims plead to their president to “stop stigmatizing us”, it is the recognition of both achievement and challenge that offers a way forward for the Fifth Republic.