The Paris banlieue: peripheries of inequity.

AuthorAngelil, Marc

Debates on contemporary urban conditions often center on the periphery of the city where an ever-increasing proportion of the urban population is forced to live. This article focuses on the banlieue--the periphery of Paris--as a model for the breakdown of the spatial order in cities globally. We examine how France's urban planning, guided by political and economic influences, has created and sustained banlieue poverty and marginalization. With rising anxieties about civil disorder in Paris resulting from the spatial inequities and cultural stigma toward the banlieue, it is now generaly agreed that the city's historical planning policies have failed. We argue that any attempt to allocate space within a city equitably cannot emanate from the city center alone, but must also come from the marginalized periphery, which is equally a part of the system.

Is Paris burning? Whether on the movie screen or in political history, this infamous question has never lost its charge. (1) The city still burns as tensions mount among factions of the urban populace, particularly between those within the city core and those on the periphery, or banlieue. The word banlieue is the product of two French words: ban (to forbid) and lieue (league, or about four kilometers). The terra refers to a belt of residential neighborhoods surrounding the city core. While "periphery" can refer to both rich and poor neighborhoods, banlieue has become a pejorative euphemism for neighborhoods with low-income housing projects, predominantly for immigrant families, that are characterized by widespread poverty, unemployment and violence.

Historically, the city limits of Paris were marked by tax-collection barriers that only extended to its immediate margins. (2) Therefore, policies and laws applied to those in the city core and the immediate periphery. Beyond this area lay the "zone," a barren stretch of land in which inhabitants were cut off from the governing framework of the republic. (3) In the early 1870s, when Paris underwent grand modernization, the immediate periphery was annexed into the city core. Gentrification and suburban sprawl led to the creation of a new periphery in which poor communities became displaced and were relegated to the outskirts, the once-barren zone. The zone became known as a "place of the ban" since residents had been excluded both physically (because of distance from the city) and culturally (because of class-based prejudice) from society. (4) Thus, the expression banlieue inters a symptomatic breakdown of spatial politics and functions as the physical manifestation of a stigmatized social space.

Urban planning in France has caused differences between the city center and the banlieue so great that the relationship between the two areas has been reduced to a standoff of good versus evil--a divide between the orderly center and its dangerous exterior. (5) Tensions between the banlieue and the city core are the result of social and spatial inequities that arise from class and ethnic territorial segregation. In a country where the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was born and where liberte, egalite, fraternite is writ large an emblem of tolerance, political practices that compromise these coveted human rights prevail, particularly for those in the banlieue. As such, complaints of injustice are growing louder in marginalized neighborhoods and have reached a fever pitch on the edges of the capital. Indeed, there is an expansive list of riots that have been widespread in France over the past few decades, including the social discord in the summer of 1981, as well as riots in the banlieues of Paris in September 1995, May 1996, December 1997 and 1998, May 1999, September 2000, July and December 2001, and January and October 2002. (6) Because of the proliferation of violence, it is generally agreed that France's postwar urban policies have been unsuccessful. The riots serve as reminders of how volatile urban spaces can become, whether in France or in the thousands of peripheries scattered across the globe. (7)


Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, a widely known French prefect and civic planner, oversaw a grandiose modernization of the nation's capital throughout the nineteenth century. Supported by Emperor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte III, Haussmann was charged with transforming the entire social and material makeup of Paris. He capitalized on the power of the straight line, creating sharp new thoroughfares through what had been a labyrinthine tangle of medieval streets; the resulting grands boulevards still dominate the inimitable images of the French capital. Such boulevards became the cornerstone of a calculated spatial zoning that clearly separated well-off areas from disadvantaged neighborhoods. (8) These efforts to restructure the urban core accomplished, according to geographer David Harvey, "the expulsion of 'dangerous classes' and insalubrious housing and industry from the city center." (9) This process of evicting the poor to the outskirts is most famously captured in the photographs of Charles Marville. Such images bear witness to the political blindness at the heart of this grand project, which fueled the anger of the underprivileged and ultimately led to la Semaine sanglante (the Bloody Week) in 1871.

Harvey identifies this division as "a spatial framework" around which "processes--of industrial and commercial development, of housing investment and residential segregation, and so on--could cluster and play out their own trajectories and thus define the new historical geography of the city's evolution." (10) Consequently, some territories develop spectacularly at the expense of others, validating the notion of "uneven geographical development." (11) Within this organized spatial hierarchy, territory becomes a symbol of power; the city core, with its displays of grandeur, is reserved for elites, while the outlying belt is for the lower classes. It is in this sense that the banlieue is an emblematic manifestation of an urban pecking order, the product of political construction that asserts...

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