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The French Brief - The Overdue Task of Understanding France's Poor Districts

The French Brief - The Overdue Task of Understanding France's Poor Districts
 Hakim El Karoui
Former Senior Fellow - Arab World, Islam

At the beginning of October, Emmanuel Macron outlined measures to tackle and combat "Islamist separatism" in France. While the public polarizes around the opposing sides of the debate, and in light of recent tragic attacks calling attention to France’s crisis of secularism, a number of questions about broader issues of social inequality and poverty rise to the surface. What causes parts of the population to "separate", and do these communities always necessarily follow religious lines? Understanding the predicament, but also the potential of France’s poor districts is a crucial endeavor in this debate. Hakim El Karoui, Senior Fellow on the Arab world and Islam at Institut Montaigne, explains what France’s poor districts look like, who inhabits them, and why it is dangerous that many of our perceptions of them are incorrect.

For decades, France has dealt with the issue of social inequality in its poor urban districts. Such districts are found to concentrate high levels of poverty, unemployment, sometimes large proportions of immigrant populations and inadequate urban infrastructure. In response, France has devised a body of policies aimed at rehabilitating them. This ensemble of policies is called la politique de la ville, which will be referred to here as France’s urban policy. 

The 1,296 districts that fall under this policy are called les quartiers prioritaires de la politique de la ville (QPV) - target districts, if you will. They include about 5 million people, or 8% of the total French population. These designations came to be in 2014 with the Lamy law, after then Junior Minister for Urban Affairs, François Lamy. A QPV contains at least 1,000 inhabitants, where more than half of the population lives on less than 11,250 euros per year, or 60% of the national median income. These districts are often referred to as the banlieues, the suburbs, or more specifically the cités, which literally translates to ‘city’. A cité refers to a neighborhood made up of social housing complexes of several thousand units, organized in the form of tower buildings, built between the 1950s and 1970s.

The urban policy hence aims to devise laws and regulations around urban planning and welfare, that various ministries undertake in partnership with local authorities and their partners. It is meant to comprise actions in favor of housing, integration into the labor market, access to education etc. 

A muddled understanding of a country’s less advantaged regions, plays in the disfavor of millions of citizens, renders public policy ineffective, and fosters discrimination.

Though this urban policy has been around since the late 1980s - early 1990s, the situation in QPVs has not necessarily changed. Numerous projects and operations have been put in place in efforts to improve the state of QPVs: the Habitat et vie sociale operation in the late 1970s; the Priority Education Zones (ZEPs), in the early 1980s, streamlining education resources to disadvantaged areas; the National plan for urban renovation (PNRU), etc. In fact, each government has had its own next brilliant idea for these districts. The problem is that each of these plans has focused on welfare and housing, without prioritizing a better redistribution of resources and economic tools that would ensure long-term citizen empowerment.

What if, instead of considering these districts as doomed to a disposition of welfare-reception, whereby the only condition for improvement is to receive more of it, the QPVs and their inhabitants were perceived as active players in the French economy, and as such, were better integrated into it? 

Doing Away with Misconceptions

Discourse and opinion play as much of an important role in how urban policy is drafted as anything else. France’s poor neighborhoods are cloaked in layers of preconceived notions that are either incorrect, or long-obsolete. 

During a two-year long quest to collect information and data about the socio-economic dispositions of France’s poor districts, which resulted in the compilation of 300 statistical tables, 40 maps and 35 interviews, it became clear there is much to unpack and deconstruct about the assumptions around QPVs. A muddled understanding of a country’s less advantaged regions, plays in the disfavor of millions of citizens, renders public policy ineffective, and fosters discrimination. If there was ever a time to not take discrimination lightly in France, this is certainly it. 

For the purpose of illustrating these claims, let’s take four common misconstrued ideas that we came across most frequently during our 2 years of research

Idea 1: That inhabitants of poor neighborhoods live off of social benefits.

By comparing the composition of income at the national level and in QPVs, we found that the inhabitants of poor districts actually receive less social transfers (pensions and welfare) than others. In 2014, the median standard of living - or gross disposable income (GDI) per unit of consumption (UC) - was €20,400 in metropolitan France and approximately €13,200 in QPVs. The share of pensions and welfare together account for approximately 33% of income on average in France, which makes the estimated amount of social transfers about €6,800. In the QPVs, the share of pensions and welfare is proportionally higher than the national average (46% of income), but quantitatively lower, with only €6,100 per inhabitant.

Revenue from social transfers is lower in the poor districts

Idea 2: That the poorest districts receive more funds than they give back.

Social protection refers to "all transfers to households, in cash or in kind, with the aim of protecting them against social risks. These transfers are referred to as social welfare benefits". A central element of the French State-operated redistribution mechanism, social protection gives rise to many misconceptions. 

We looked at the per capita contribution to the funding of social protection in France. The first finding of the analysis was that these were most concentrated in a few departments, where the major metropolises are located. But then, we also found that there is no correlation between the level of poverty of a department and the per capita amount of the contribution they give to social protection. Among the ten departments with the highest per capita contribution to social protection, we find strong disparities in poverty levels. The Yvelines and Savoie regions, with poverty rates of 9.7% and 10.4% respectively (compared with 14.9% in mainland France) are among the wealthiest departments in France, and are respectively the fourth and ninth largest contributors to social protection in the country.

Paris, with a higher than average poverty rate of 16.2%, is the department where the per capita contribution to social protection is the highest in the world, with about €25,300. Even more tellingly, Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in France, with a poverty rate twice the national average (29%), is the eighth largest contributor to social protection, with €9,300 per inhabitant, which makes for significantly higher flows coming out of Seine-Saint-Denis (€14.4 bn) than from other richer departments, and almost the same as Yvelines (€15.1 bn). 

There is no correlation between the level of poverty of a department and the per capita amount of the contribution they give to social protection.

Seine-Saint-Denis is the 8th largest contributor to social protection in France

Idea 3: That drugs are the lifeblood of poor districts.

The turnover generated by drug trafficking is estimated to be at €2.7 bn in France, in which €1.2 bn for cannabis alone. By comparison, the mass retail sector generates €110 bn, and the food industry €180 bn. 

The number of people involved in the cannabis trade in France is estimated to be around 200,000 individuals. If we were to assume that all of these individuals live in QPVs (which is not true), they would only represent 3% of the total population of these districts. Moreover, if we look at how this economic activity is structured, we’d notice that out of these 200,000 individuals, most work only part-time or sporadically. The full-time equivalent (FTE) in this sector is estimated to only be €20,000. 

In addition to this mostly insignificant impact on employment, turnover from the cannabis trade is distributed very unevenly among the individuals involved. In 2007, the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT) had modelled the estimated number of individuals and their gains from the cannabis trade, depending on their position in the distribution chain. The results showed that those heading the networks (about 10 of them in France) and the thousand or so wholesalers are able to rake in an annual €400,000. All the other 130,000 or so individuals distributed along the rest of the chain do not make more than €7000 a year, or about €500 a month. 

Drugs are only a small part of the economic activity of poor districts.

Idea 4: That discrimination is only a marginal phenomenon.

There is a clearly-positioned current of political thought that tries to insist that in France there isn’t really any discrimination based on origin or religion.Choosing to believe that means being blind to the reality of millions of citizens living in the country today. Marie-Anne Valfort’s 2013 study on religious discrimination in employment demonstrated the bias in how CVs are perceived when a candidate is clearly of non-French origins or of a particular religion. According to a 2016 study on the diversity of the French population, titled Trajectoires et Origines, 47% of people with sub-Saharan African origins, 32% of Moroccan origins and 30% of Algerian origins said they had experienced discrimination. 

In the origin-gender-religion spectrum of discrimination, being a Muslim named Mohammed will certainly not play in your favor. Why would there be an added gender dimension to this discrimination? Perhaps because of a two-dimensional view that sees women as victims of Islam and men as the ones who lock women behind the veil. Men are feared, which is not helped by the fact that perpetrators of terrorist attacks are almost exclusively men. 

Yet, the same 2016 study shows how most immigrants or their children said they felt French. The social reality they live in, however, sends these "visible minorities" back to their supposed origins. And the reality today is that many young North Africans born in France grow up between two cultures, without being fully accepted into either. 

The list goes on, in our latest French publication for Institut Montaigne more specifically. But the message is clear: as citizens, we bear the responsibility of doing our own due diligence. 

Discrimination linked to one's origins is a common phenomenon

The Collective Benefit of Understanding

The poverty level is an important, but not the only, feature that needs to be understood about the QPVs. These districts are also extremely diverse ethnically and demographically, and are situated all around the country. 

On average, the QPVs have a younger population than elsewhere, with twice as many young people under the age of 20 as there are +60 year olds in France. Furthermore, one household in five is a single-parent family, compared to one in ten on average in the rest of France. This family configuration is often synonymous with poverty: in one out of five cases, the single-parent family lives below the poverty line, and in more than 80% of cases, the parent is a woman. However even within these general guidelines, there are multiple nuances and specificities depending on where the QPVs are.

Seine-Saint-Denis is a rather well-known poor district of France, one that even international media has not hesitated to brand as "notorious" or a "no-go zone". Even in the case of Seine-Saint-Denis we have insisted that it has received its fair share of misconception and that it harbors an enormous amount of potential for prosperity and empowerment for its citizens. But Seine-Saint-Denis is specific in that it now "functions" as a host district for immigration. Between 1982 and 2015, its share of the immigrant population went from 15.5% to 29.7%. During this period, while its population increased by 20%, its immigrant population increased by 128%. In many ways, the images that Seine-Saint-Denis conjures up are the archetype of poor districts in France, and perhaps in Western Europe more broadly. 

In one out of five cases, the single-parent family lives below the poverty line, and in more than 80% of cases, the parent is a woman. 

But not all QPVs look like Seine-Saint-Denis. The north of France is characterized by QPVs that have been created in post-industrial towns, which have a lower immigrant population, but a much higher level of poverty and unemployment. QPVs can also be found further away from city centers, sitting around small towns and villages with a much older population. These ones have slightly lower levels of poverty and fewer single-parent families.

Understanding the diversity of France’s poor districts is not only useful for the curious reader, but it is crucial for accurate and cohesive policy-making, especially when it comes to grasping the potential of the QPVs. In the past 40 years, urban policy has focused on urban renovation, centered more around helping buildings than people, and leaving the comparative advantages of these QPVs unexploited. A window of opportunity is opening up in the labor market as a result of job polarization. This process is characterized by an increase in the share of jobs in the upper and lower tiers of qualification levels, to the detriment of intermediate-level jobs, which in fact works in the favor of poor neighborhoods. Furthermore, the larger, metropolitan QPVS have a significant young and dynamic human capital, proximity to city centers and cheaper land. They have the potential to develop, and that in a way that ensures that the wealth permeates to the local population as well, instead of bypassing it. 

Overall, the situation is better than we believe in the districts that we think are the poorest, and that are most often caricatured by the media. The perspectives are positive for many QPVs in France. The rest will depend on how the government, together with local actors, will approach a heterogenous body of QPVs, each with their shortcomings but also their specific assets. Grasping this, and investing in people at least as much as investing in buildings, is a fundamental element of tackling poverty in France. This becomes especially important at a time when, more than ever, the political divide pits the winners and losers of globalization against each other, and when it is necessary to reconcile France with itself, instead of pushing it towards further polarization. QPVs are integral to France, and they have a role to play, as much as the rest of the country. 


Copyright: JOEL ROBINE / AFP

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