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French suburbs during Covid-19: between turmoil and inequality

French suburbs during Covid-19: between turmoil and inequality
 Caroline Bray
Philosopher with a focus on immigration, integration and secularism
 Naïma M’Faddel

Essayist and urban policy consultant

Since the lockdown was announced by the French President on March 16, heavy and frequent suspicions of rule-breaching have weighed on those living in areas colloquially known as the "suburbs". These accusations could appear legitimate and relevant, since these neighbourhoods have been confronted with urban violence for decades. From the very beginning of the lockdown, the press has been pointing out that these "suburbanites" have not been having an easy time with being confined. Law enforcement officers have seemingly been overwhelmed with the situation, and they too have been suspected of not properly reporting deviant activities, as has been done everywhere else on the territory.

Others have even dared to latch on to a handful of extremist preachers who see Covid-19 as a fair punishment, a holy disease coming to strike the impious. The higher proportion of ill people in certain departments such as Seine-Saint-Denis, or cities such as Marseille and Perpignan consolidated the alarmist fears expressed by both defenders and detractors of the suburbs. It fed speculations about these neighbourhoods’ response to the lockdown and questioned their civility, discipline and even citizenship in the face of this brutal and virulent health crisis.

But if we put preconceived notions about these areas aside, what does lockdown actually look like for these populations? Are barrier gestures truly not respected? Might there be a ‘suburban exception’ to be observed in the Covid-19 crisis? What lessons can be drawn for the future? 

The reality of the lockdown in the suburbs 

In the week leading up to the announcement of the lockdown in France, while social distancing was ever more encouraged, hugs, handshakes and embraces persisted nonchalantly. With a certain degree of fatalism, suburban residents were signalling that this invisible disease did not concern them. 

However, once faced with the brutality and violence of the health crisis, widely spreading to everyone in France, irrespective of their social status, religion and origins, the reaction to the actual lockdown in working-class neighbourhoods was, it should be stressed, responsible, civic-minded and disciplined for the most part. In this respect, the role played by religious authorities is to be applauded. Mohamed Moussaoui, President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) held a republican and pedagogical speech about the lockdown immediately after the President’s address. The various statements issued by the president of the CFCM were massively relayed by mosque leaders and imams, as well as by all the chaplains and clerics mobilised. The call to "come and pray in the mosque" was thereby replaced by a call to "pray at home"

It is likely that these actions of solidarity will multiply during the month of Ramadan, a time of mutual aid and charity.

Healthcare measures have taken precedence over religious traditions. Mosques have been closed, the bathing ritual during funerals is no longer practiced, these latter ones held without the presence of relatives, and families have understood the impossibility of repatriation to their native countries. This year, fasting for Ramadan will take place in a context of total closure of mosques in France. 

This Covid-19 crisis has seen numerous initiatives emerge, especially as young people from working-class neighbourhoods are building an impressive momentum of solidarity and creativity. Actions of care towards healthcare personnel and those most affected by the crisis were launched throughout France. These actions will most likely continue and increase during the month of Ramadan, a time of mutual aid and charity.

As early as the second week of lockdown, the suburbs began to rumble. Suburban populations understood that they had to isolate themselves in order to break the chain of transmission. Of course, a minority of people did not respect the lockdown... which was also the case everywhere else in France, as shown by the geographical and numerical distribution of fines. Yet, the image of young people at the bottom of their ten-storey buildings does not convey the same message as the image of a barbecue organised with friends in a suburban city or in a rural area. The eruption of "riots" was quickly attributed to a rejection of the lockdown, but the reality is that urban violence in certain neighbourhoods has other roots. Social divides in France have fostered a habit of confrontation with police officers and firefighters, as well as a defiance of authority. Let us not ignore that the lockdown disrupts drug trafficking, which has not magically stopped as a result of the health crisis, and which sustains a number of families in normal times, or at the very least improves their daily lives. The government had to grapple with the question of how the lockdown could be enforced in areas where police officers and firefighters are routinely targeted. Police officers are being asked to "keep a low profile" and to "leave the area very quickly" in order to avoid riots. But how can this be done when, for decades, their presence has been required to protect firefighters during their interventions? 

In a context of exceptional crisis where the priority lies in saving and sparing the maximum number of lives, it seems natural that "fighting" against minor offenders who provoke the police is not paramount. The period defines what the priorities are. However the reality is that delinquency in these neighborhoods has been a recurrent problem for several decades, one that public policy has yet to successfully resolve. 

This phenomenon is all the more worrying considering the young demographic in these neighborhoods, consisting of minors under the age of 15, has been on the rise in recent years. 

Disproportionate effects in the suburbs? 

If the lockdown in these neighborhoods is overall respected, how can we then explain that their inhabitants are overrepresented in hospital admissions for Covid-19? Why can we count so many patients in Marseille, Perpignan and Seine-Saint-Denis? Precariousness is often put forward as an explanation. It is a fact. 40% of the population in these neighbourhoods live below the poverty line, a rate that can reach 80% in some cities. These neighbourhoods are therefore territorial bubbles of poverty in France. But the "poor" also live outside these so-called priority neighborhoods (only a quarter of the population under the poverty rate live in these areas), which thus magnifies the problems induced by precariousness. 

This is not sufficient to explain this population’s over-representation in hospitals. Sociologically speaking, these inhabitants differ from the "city population": this is the France of workers. Let us not forget that in the suburbs, 51% of men are blue-collar workers, compared to an average of 26% in France, and 59% of women are employees, compared to a 42% national average. 

In contrast with the persistent cliché of these men and women living off society’s back, people in suburbs are forced to go to work and therefore cannot confine themselves, as opposed to many executives and managers who are working from home. Care workers, cashiers, medical staff, delivery workers, drivers, cleaners, security guards are all workers indispensable to the continuity of daily life. They are forced to take public transports and to work alongside other people, thus increasing their risk of infection.

The health crisis is exacerbating social inequalities. While two thirds of executives work from home, and only 17% are required to work on-site, 39% of workers were forced to go to work in the first weeks. 

The health crisis is exacerbating social inequalities.

Working-class neighbourhoods are also home to a very young population, as a quarter of its inhabitants are younger than 15 years old, and families tend to be larger than elsewhere. It is expected that young people, wherever they come from, would find it harder to obey rules. On the other hand, not enough is said about the ageing problem of the suburbs. One in every six inhabitants is now over 60 years old. They are often dependent on their children for administrative procedures and home care. Very few can afford to live in a retirement home. The lockdown therefore poses a problem for them, because their livelihood relies on contact with the outside world. The solidarity of family and friends that usually allows them to stay at home is now a threat, which in turn means that they are the first to suffer from the failure of younger people to respect the lockdown. 

Finally, it should be noted that the likelihood of death due to the Covid-19 is also greater for inhabitants of these neighbourhoods, due to health characteristics such as obesity and diabetes. Moreover, as is the case in rural areas, these neighbourhoods have limited access to healthcare services, due mostly to a shortage of doctors and specialists. Unfortunately, the feeling of insecurity in working-class neighbourhoods tends to discourage doctors and nurses from settling there.

In working-class neighbourhoods, the feeling of insecurity in working-class neighbourhoods tends to discourage doctors and nurses from settling there.

While these general characteristics may apply to the rest of the French population, they nonetheless conceal strong disparities and structural problems specific to French suburbs. Precariousness cannot be understood solely from the prism of access to resources: such an analysis would fail to explain the disproportionate numbers of contaminations and deaths due to Covid-19. Nor does it give an accurate picture of the specific and entrenched problems faced by the suburbs, to which urban policy has been confronted with for more than 30 years. 

How are suburbs different from some of the rural territories or medium-sized towns that are equally affected by poverty?

Suburbs were created as a part of a particular urban policy (la politique de la ville), defined by the Lamy law of 2014 according to two criteria: income of its inhabitants and district density. It is therefore the scale of precariousness that defines these neighbourhoods. In other words, these territories have the specificity of grouping together a maximum number of people with low incomes. A quarter of poor people in France live in these suburbs, which also means that three quarters of poor people live outside of these neighbourhoods. Suburbs have benefited from the support of a powerful public policy that has been deploying considerable resources to organise urban reconstruction for decades.

Yet, the reality remains that difficulties have not disappeared, and have even worsened in the territories targeted for the implementation of urban policy. 

This policy is carried out in neighbourhoods whose population is extremely fragile for many reasons. The absence of social and cultural heterogeneity there is important. Many of these neighbourhoods end up welcoming newcomers to the territory, immigrants joining previous generations of immigrants who are experiencing strong social and economic difficulties. 

The majority of large families concentrated there are also single-parent families who tend to be headed by women. These women’s activity and employment rates are low and exclusion from the labour market further aggravates their precarity. Single parenthood is a powerful factor in explaining the impoverishment of working-class families, despite the implementation of several policies that have attempted to help.

This urban policy has had the perverse and inverse effect of locking its inhabitants into an ecosystem that seldom allows its population to leave. Schools, shops, public services and associations in charge of implementing the plan defined by the urban policy were thus built and placed within this ecosystem. In short, the politique de la ville had confined the population well before the crisis-related lockdown did. It seems easy then, to denounce the lack of mobility of inhabitants of these neighborhoods. 

The billions spent on the politique de la ville have not enabled these neighbourhoods to tackle precariousness, quite the contrary. By means of a differentiation policy, France has "separated its poor" between the inhabitants of the infamous zoning system on the one hand, thus entitled to specific care and positive discrimination, and those who are excluded from it on the other hand, thus fuelling resentment and tensions between citizens.

The politique de la ville had confined the population well before the crisis-related lockdown did.

This public policy has fostered sentiments of "othering" and communitarianism in these neighbourhoods, locking them in on themselves. It has created an "us" and a "them, a distinction between those who live inside these neighbourhoods, and those who live outside.

An unprecedented, but salutary health crisis? 

All that said, this unprecedented health crisis could prove salutary. Far from the clichés and dominant narratives about the suburbs, it reveals that the populations have respected the lockdown, and that they have shown solidarity towards healthcare staff, the elderly, and struggling families, as is observed elsewhere in France. With regard to Islam, subject to a highly controversial debate over the religion’s "compatibility" with the French Republic, Muslim religious authorities have demonstrated a republican and civic spirit by giving precedence to government health instructions over religious practices. The crisis thus reveals an ‘Islam of France’ far more powerful than some people dare to imagine. 

What the crisis also reveals, as the President of the Republic reminded us in his most recent speech, is the importance of precarious jobs. Deemed unrewarding due to their undesirable social status and income, these jobs are keeping the country going. It is precisely the workforce that lives outside of the major metropolises, in the suburbs, in peri-urban areas or in rural areas, that makes it possible for the country to face this crisis. They have enabled life to continue in France despite the lockdown. It is time to remind us of Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights stating that "Social distinctions can only be based on common utility". A principle too often forgotten in a nation that is no longer offering all children equal opportunities in their education trajectories. Social determinism, combined with contempt, runs the risk of fuelling a dangerous wind of revolt among those who are seen as the "France from below". 

This health crisis reveals an urgent need to put an end to an urban policy underpinned by territorial divide, and to instead rebuild a France that truly makes a place for each and everyone. 



Copyright : Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP

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