The Darker Side of Paris

The Darker Side of Paris

On her year abroad, Millie Hurst takes a look at the deprivation in the suburbs of Paris

I’m going to take a liberty and say that you’ve probably seen Mathieu Kassovitz’s revelatory film, La Haine or ‘Hate’- I mean, you’ll still be able to recite its opening sequence if you took French at A Level – and you’ve heard news stories of police brutality and car burning in French suburbs. If, for some reason you haven’t, it tells the story of three friends from immigrant families living in a deprived social housing area in the Paris suburbs and the anger and police brutality that go hand in hand.

But despite a series of such films and media coverage of civil unrest, providing a window into the harsh socio-economic conditions in France’s poor housing projects, les banlieues are still French society’s elephant in the room.

It’s like those questions surrounding France’s colonial past, the realities of global mass meat production or the ins and outs of how our new trainers were made. Both the marginalisation and lack of social mobility in French suburbs are stranded in this hazy area on the edge of public consciousness. And it’s made very easy to overlook these areas begging for better transport links, due to their far-flung locations on the perimeter of most French cities – until the next riot.

Whether we’re on a romantic city break in Paris or, like me, an Erasmus student desperately trying to get CAF five months into their placement, we can have a very blinkered vision of French society due to the positions of these areas at the end of metro lines, and their self containment with pharmacies, schools and hospitals.

Of course, deprivation exists everywhere, in the same way that in London a hop, skip and a jump can take you from a council estate to houses owned by A-list celebrities, and some kind of social hierarchy is inevitable. And it’s not just a case of France being ‘a little rough round the edges’. As we sit on the steps of the Sacré Coeur at Montmartre, admiring the world’s most romantic city, listening to buskers and biting into pastel coloured macaroons, La Goutte d’Or – often cited on Places to avoid in Paris lists and known for drug trafficking and prostitution – lies just below.

Sure, we can argue that young people are driven to leave the area where they grew up, but with the competitive French education system and surname discrimination, it’s not always so easy.

Despite major renovation in neighbourhoods like Saine-Saint-Denis on the fringe of Paris, the feeling of alienation among their inhabitants persists.

The grandchildren of the influx of Algerians who first moved into these 1960s tower blocks to help rebuild France after the Second World War, often identifying neither with their parent’s heritage, nor with the Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité of the hexagon, have affirmed their own identity with verlan, saying we don’t speak like you to the rest of French society.

Twenty-one years on from the La Haine premier in Cannes, we’re at least now aware that rather than evoking Kate Winslet’s Surrey cottage getaway in The Holiday, or a scene from Desperate Housewives, the French translation of suburb usually paints quite a different picture. But today, in France’s uncertain times, radical Islam and deeper divisions that weren’t present while Kassovitz was filming his monochrome blockbuster have become part of the equation.

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Feature image Credit: Millie Hurst

Millie Hurst