Urban geography, difference, and territoriality in France

Posted on July 7th, 2016 by

Saint Denis is a city to the north of Paris, located in the inner suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. It is, by all measures, a global city. With a population of over 90,000 inhabitants, Saint Denis is extremely diverse. Here we encounter populations from North Africa, Sub-Sahara Africa and the Middle East along with “native” French. The terms “native” and “foreigners” are contested in France. The French concept of citizenship premises that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law. For that matter, the French state does not gather statistical measurements about the ethnic composition of its population. In France you are either French or foreign-born. Unlike the US Census, which asks questions about race and ethnicity very explicitly, in France such information is believed to be discriminatory and divisive. Nevertheless, numerous statisticians, sociologists, and demographers have demonstrated that French citizenship is experienced very differently for populations from North African, Sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean and Middle Eastern origins. For instance, unemployment rates among French citizens of immigrant origins (outside the EU) are known to be twice as high as native French. Moreover, poverty rates are also concentrated in social housing estates located in cities like Saint Denis and other suburbs, where a good number of populations of immigrant origins reside. The lack of ethnic- and racial-based statistics makes it harder to devise and implement policies specifically intended for the immigrant populations.

Pedestrian shopping area in downtown Saint Denis

Pedestrian shopping area in downtown Saint Denis

One exception is French urban policy (la polique de la ville). In the 1980s and 1990s, the concentration of poverty and unemployment in housing projects in the suburbs of French cities started to become a problem for authorities that witnessed a series of social disturbances authored by disenfranchised young people. In response, the government launched a territorial approach to tackle ethnic- and racial-based poverty. The program has identified over 1000 neighborhoods across France that are experiencing high unemployment rates, exclusion from services, and a series of social and economic difficulties. Geography, in other words, became a means to overcome the inequalities and differences that the French citizenship concept is unable (or unwilling) to recognize.
In the next month I will be going to cities like Saint Denis to explore the territorial politics of the criminal justice system. If every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law, why is the criminal justice system more intensely present in neighborhoods and cities with a higher rate of populations of immigrant origins? I am hoping to address this and other questions in the next few weeks. I will try to keep you updated with my observations.
Happy summer!


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