Macron must bring France’s banlieues back from the brink

Covid-19 has highlighted the inequalities of France’s urban areas. Mr. Macron must take action.

A noisy motorway of just over 35km snakes its way around the perimeters of Paris, more or less where the former city walls once stood. The boulevard périphérique, or périph to locals, was built to improve mobility in the city. Yet, for those on the outer side of it, the périphérique is a symbol of anything but increased mobility – in social terms, at least. It is instead the dividing line between the city of love and light, and several decades of deprivation and poverty.

Not all towns and cities in France have a ring road like the one in the capital. But, sure enough, many of them have a stark divide between rich and poor. Covid-19 has only exacerbated the differences between leafier suburban areas and the so-called quartiers populaires (working-class areas) or banlieues (outskirts).

Take Seine-Saint-Denis, a regional département located on the north side of Paris, for example. Excess deaths between March 1st and April 27th were 128.9% higher than usual – the highest rate of the région parisienne. What made Covid-19 more deadly, however, was that Seine-Saint-Denis was already an overwhelmingly deprived area. It has one of the highest levels nationwide of chronic respiratory disease and diabetes among over-65s, and almost one third of its residents live on under €1,060 per month. This figure is France’s poverty threshold. Seine Saint-Denis is also a place of incredible cultural diversity. Just over 23 percent of its population is of non-French nationality. New research published by the University of Glasgow shows that Covid-19 has hit residents from minority ethnic groups in England much harder than those from white backgrounds. The situation looks similar in France.

Further away in Marseille, the story is the same. Doctors reported much higher numbers of cases in the city’s poorer districts of Malpassé and Kallisté in the north. And half of Marseille’s population earns less than €1,370 per month, according to a 2013 report. It also noted that Marseille’s top 10% earned more than 15 times the amount earned by its poorest.

The parallels between inequality and cases of Covid-19 are clear. Preventing poverty must therefore be high on French politicians’ agenda. However, the recent banlieue strategy of France’s current president, Emmanuel Macron, has been lacklustre. In 2017, Mr. Macron commissioned Jean-Louis Borloo, an ex-planning minister who served during Nicolas Sarkozy’s time in office, to produce a report on tackling suburban deprivation. The 160-page report was subsequently published in April 2018. Yet, despite six months’ worth of research carried out with local stakeholders, and having achieved consensus among key figures in Mr. Macron’s administration, Mr. Borloo’s report was unexpectedly dropped.

Indeed, Mr. Borloo’s proposals for improving poverty in the banlieues had pitfalls. For a start, the package came in at an expensive €48 billion. Some regional mayors also complained that they would have to give up significant power under the plans, which they said would be transferred to figures in Paris, as well as to private local actors like associations and businesses. Engaging extensively with charities and associations from these areas might not, however, have been a bad idea. The Institut Montaigne, one of France’s key public policy think tanks, noted in a report last month that leaders should “promote cooperative action between public and private actors.”

Having dropped Mr. Borloo’s recommendations, Mr. Macron unveiled his own banlieues battle plan”. In his classic rhetorical style, Mr. Macron said that he “is not going to [sic] announce a banlieues battle plan as old as I am” and opted instead for “a philosophy and a method.” Sadly, this plan included no clear spending commitment. Mr. Macron’s measures have contributed in some way to improving the banlieues, but have been limited. Mr. Macron promised to ensure that children in middle schools belonging to France’s réseaux d’éducation prioritaire (priority education network in areas of extreme inequality) would benefit from 30,000 new work experience placements. It seems, however, that these only last between three and five days, and do not ensure any long-term successes. Mr. Macron also pledged €2 billion to enable the creation of 20,000 jobs in 12 months for those in deprived areas. Twelve months later, only 5,800 contracts had been secured. Ensuring long-term job security should be a top priority; 1 in 6 people in France’s working-class districts were high-school dropouts.

Mr. Borloo’s plan was expensive, but it might have had a better chance at attacking the root causes of poverty, which include lacking educational opportunities and continued financial hardship in households. Mr. Borloo proposed creating 200 online educational campuses, bringing resources into the homes of young people in the banlieues. Indeed, the higher education minister announced plans for digital campuses one year later, but these focused on university-level education. Mr. Borloo’s report highlighted that much support needs to be directed towards solving a deficit of very basic skills, such as reading. A report published last month argued that embracing new technology would greatly assist people living in Seine-Saint-Denis. It is also worth calling to mind that housing of poor quality contributed greatly to the spread of Covid-19. Some property interest groups say that affordable housing has not been one of Mr. Macron’s top priorities.

Furthermore, the idea of spending €200 million on improving transport links was also shelved in Mr. Macron’s re-think, as well as Mr. Borloo’s recommendation that tens of millions be spent on arts projects and libraries in poorer suburbs. Mr. Macron has pledged to boost community policing in order to combat “Islamist separatism”. Such a strategy does not, however, focus resources on integrating communities or focusing on the causes of inequality which lead to crime and violence.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that much work remains to be done in France’s most deprived areas. Over €100 billion has been spent on the banlieues in the last 30 years. Yet it might not have been enough, nor spent in the most appropriate ways. Mr. Macron must rethink his “battle plan” strategy before he can emerge victorious from the fight against urban inequality.

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