Guest Post: France's Real "No-Go Zones"

William Barbosa is a student at IATU (the institute for urbanism and tourism) in Bordeaux. Previously he wrote for Lvblcity about regional transport planning in Geneva and urban design in Bordeaux. 

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in January 2015 the American media company Fox News described several areas in central Paris as “no-go zones”.  These are supposedly places where only violence rules and where non-Muslims were denied access. The documentary scandalized the whole of France and was based on falsified, wrong interpreted information. However, when it comes down to it, Fox News was probably not completely wrong. They simply located the “no-go zones” at the wrong places and talked about them with the wrong words. So which are these real "no-go zones" in France?

It was a cold and rainy winter day in Bordeaux. I was going to my work in the north of the city. As usual, I transferred from tramway to bus at a neighbourhood next to the Lake, called “Les Aubiers”. A group of 1960’s concrete blocks – known in the French language as “Grands Ensembles” – is where a large poor Arabic and African population lives. But this day, no vehicle departed from the habitual bus station. Notice boards indicated me to move to another bus stop. As I arrived at the new stop, I asked a driver for explanation. He replied: In order to protest against increasing violence against drivers from the local “youngsters” and against the occupation of empty busses for illegal traffic, the workers of the Company of Trams and Busses of Greater Bordeaux (TBC) decided to stop calling at “Les Aubiers” as long as their safety was not guaranteed.

One month later, nothing really changed, but one thing. TBC now demands bus drivers to control tickets when passengers get on the bus. Drivers got angry for the reason that they would be even more exposed to violence in specific poor areas. So, in order to warn the head of the company about travel conditions that become even more unsafe for both drivers and passengers, tram and bus drivers are going from March 2nd onwards on a strike that could last… from one to seven months. This would paralyze this city and its 800,000 inhabitants for an uncertain amount of time.

How has such a situation become a reality in a country that claims equality at the front of all of its public buildings? In 2004, French sociologist Jacques Donzelot explained his famous (and controversial!) theory of the “three-gear city”. According to him, French modern cities face three tendencies that tear apart the French society. City centres are getting gentrified, while the poor and the migrants are segregated in social housings, mostly located in the “grands ensembles”. The middle class, who lost access to city centres but who fear living next to poor people, move far away from the city, encouraging urban sprawl.

Let’s move back to the 1950’s and 60’s. France, like many other European cities, faced an increasing need of housings due to the damages caused by the Second World War and due to the exponential economic growth. At this time, functionalism triumphed among planners and architects. So, the Ministry of Reconstruction solved the housing crisis by making social housings build in large concrete blocks at the outskirts of cities, named “grands ensembles”. Even if these housings were the most modern of the country, they were too far away and disconnected from the city centres. Moreover, because of the lack of activities, life in these neighbourhoods was boring for most inhabitants. Little by little, the first inhabitants moved away as soon as they could access to ownership. The “grands ensembles” became so distasteful that housing prices plummeted. Then, new migrants, mostly from Africa, came to France without a job. So, the only type of housing they could afford was the social ones in the “grands ensembles”.

Nowadays’ western societies are splitting along ethnic or religious lines, and social inequalities are rising dramatically. Because of their inaccessibility, a high unemployment rate, and a lack of social recognition, the French “grands ensembles” have become a place where excluded ethnic groups created their own, exclusive identity. In France, young people from these neighbourhoods even created their own language – the “français des cités” –, habits and art. But solidarity between the inhabitants is almost non-existent. Violence inside the blocks is numerous, and people tend to withdraw into themselves as they fear for their own safety. The State seems to lose control of these areas despite ambitious policies implemented since the 1980s. Neither teachers nor policemen are welcome. Fights against civil servants happen frequently. For instance, in November 2005, urban violence in most relegated areas made France tremble for one month after a couple of Arabic and African teenagers died near Paris as the police tried to arrest them. That happened one month after former Minister of domestic affairs Nicolas Sarkozy declared he would “clean the suburbs with a kärcher (high pressure hose)”.

Municipalities are aware of the exclusion and the radicalization of these inhabitants. They try to implement a new concept that could help solve the problem: “la mixité sociale” (social mix). Their aim is to mix people from different social, geographical and cultural origins in the same urban neighbourhood. Let’s take the case of Les Aubiers. The city of Bordeaux has been planning since the 2000’s an important programme of renovation that could bring some social mix to this isolated part. After the line C of the tramway was extended in 2008, the part became an important bus station for the north of the city region. An Eco-district, “Ginko”, is being built nearby, on the Lake side. New infrastructure and equipment for young people should follow before 2020. Nevertheless, the recent violence against bus drivers shows that Les Aubiers remains separated from the rest of the city by social and spatial frontiers. Invoking social mix is not efficient enough to open a part whose inhabitants remain strongly convinced that the French society refuses to integrate them.