Macron and the banlieues: what turning point exactly?

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May 2018 - From Great Works to small works - measures that definitely say goodbye to the conventional Plans Banlieues.

 

I was one among many who watched French president Emmanuel Macron's speech last Tuesday on national television, announcing his new "plan" for the banlieues.  

 

The reason for this might be because I am a woman urban planner, or because my research focuses in part on ways to redefine and re-operationalize these peripheries that are at the heart of national urban issues. 

It is probably more so because Macron's marathon speech at the Palais de l'Élysée was strongly anticipated, since his last positioning on the topic last November in Tourcoing (Hauts-de-France), after he was criticized for not taking a clear stand on the topic. The context of the speech was particularly heated. It was scheduled against the background of current armed confrontations between drug dealers and local police in the peripheries of Marseille, and the release of a parliamentary report on the blatant lack of resources facing the Grand Paris department of Seine Saint-Denis (93) which concentrates so many of these territories' emblematic issues.

 

After Macron's speech, what is left of the Plan Borloo? This previous multi-year plan format had been crafted by Jean-Louis Borloo, former Minister under both Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy's presidencies, and borrowed to a format that was the norm for decades when dealing with the nation's residential peripheries during the postwar era, best exemplified by the more recent Politique de la Ville that emerged during the 1980s-1990s. This Tuesday, it was officially replaced by the announcement of nineteen targeted measures, instead of a plan per se.

 

This rejection of a plan format, which Macron called "as old as (him)", somewhat echoes his predecessor François Hollande's positioning, as he also considered this a type of Marshall Plan which would be useless for the banlieues. Behind this turning point lies a vivid debate between two views. The first one, embodied by Borloo's camp, believes multi-year planning can mend the economic and social fabric of these peripheries. The second one, embodied by Macron's camp, considers such a process to be a true Sisyphean task that does not yield tangible results. While Macron acknowledged the partially positive results of the previous standard modus operandi, his speech clearly asserted how he wants a fresh breeze to blow on these territories. 

 

Beyond the shift from a plan to a list of measures which elected officials and the media are extensively commenting upon, and beyond the rumors of potential personal conflicts with Jean-Louis Borloo which the president refuted, my sense is that the definition of how to operationalize the banlieues is not really subject to a shift. It still relies on classic grand mottos: the refusal to assign citizens to a territory and an identity, hand in hand with the duty to locally "recreate the Republic" by patching up the fabric of identities, against hate speeches, communitarianism, radicalism, and glaring gender inequalities in these peripheries. Current events attached to them call for this, and justify Macron's words when he states that "the 'hoods have talent, but there's also violence, insecurity and this proves to be explosive". Hence his proposition to add 1,300 more police officers by 2020 in the neighborhoods most constrained by systemic violence. Agreed, nothing new under the sun.

 

What announces changes in Macron's philosophy of emancipation for the banlieues is the mobilization of actors at all levels of the nation, which was recently made official through the Pacte de Dijon. True, the collaboration of the state, municipalities, public and private sector, hand in hand, is illustrated by the brief list of measures he partially unveiled during his 1h 30mn address. For instance, in the collective fight against terrorism, the systematic cooperation between municipal police, prefects and mayors. Or, as part of the creation of more opportunities for the youth, an education system battle plan that calls for both the public and private sector to provide ninth graders from local ZEP school institutions (priority education zones) with 30,000 more internship opportunities. The gist of this mobilization needs to be further clarified in order to convince the very actors that must get on board with this strategy.

 

The shift from place-based to people-based actions is also worthy of a special note, and illustrates this hybrid model that the president wants to adopt, which he calls a politique de populations. This goes hand in hand with rethinking the territorialisation of subsidies, a statement which triggered a warm round of applause. For him, "Le Mirail (low-income neighborhoods in Toulouse) will get fixed at the scale of the metropolitan area of Toulouse", meaning that local hardships should be dealt with at multiple scales, to ease the prerogatives of local stakeholders, and fight segregation by income and ethnicity.

 

He had promised a list of measures, instead of a classic address, but the speech he gave was once again hybrid, revealing a clear ideological stand on these territories, certainly at odds with Sarkozy's tough talk, which I do not miss. We find ourselves with a voluntarist policy à la Macron, where the State does not act alone, but becomes the facilitator of multiple actors mobilized. All the codes of Macron the orator were in fact invoked, including odes to entrepreneurship and digital platforms. It remains to be seen how this all translates exactly when it comes to the banlieues, in order not to lack substance. It also remains to be seen what other tools will be deployed as part of this non-plan to involve all actors, particularly those already deployed locally, many of which stayed perplex after this speech. The most virulent of them denounced a firefighter approach, or a deceitful attempt to hide the mere lack of funds allocated to the banlieues under the current administration. 

 

The president's speech repeatedly referred to the month of July as the time when clear commitments would be announced and road maps stabilized, and when the associated digital participatory platform "La France, une chance" (France, One chance) would be launched. I guess we will have to be patient and deliberate again on this in July.

The materialist mythologies of an impromptu crisis: the yellow vests and French infrastructure

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January 2019 - "What we thus oppose is not the man to the man, but the striker to the end-user" (Barthes, 1957)

 

In his collection of essays Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes addressed a timely opposition. The end-user is often portrayed as the man in the street: algebraic, abstract, imaginary. He embodies the mystification of the strike into social disruption. After that, there is generally no point in knowing who is wrong and who is right. The strike is reduced to a scandal that harms this very abstraction.    

This feeds all kinds of fantasies. Just think of Trump's misinformed retweet about the ongoing French yellow vest strikes against the fuel tax. He sees it as the damper on Macron's lofty green goals, which he dubs the "radical leftist fuel taxes". Think of the far-fetched historical connections made by many with episodes such as the French Revolution, 1950s Poujadism, or May 68. Think of the political exploitation by populist writers like Christophe Guilluy, whose tendentious op-eds feed into theories about a poorer "peripheral France" - France périphérique - dispossessed by globalization and immigration, ready to rise and break down the system. 

 

The yellow vest - gilet jaune - technically refers to the high visibility safety vest made mandatory for car drivers in 2008. The bright fluorescent yellow vest became the metonymy of protests that started after an increase in fuel taxes, which made one litre of gas cost 1.59 euros, approximately six dollars per gallon. This increase represents a burden for lower-income households, particularly the car-dependent ones located in more isolated rural and suburban areas. The movement has no defined leader and pretty blurry political affiliations marked by many internal schisms. The general motto is distrust towards Macron's administration and the ruling elite.

 

The past week had marked the third week of violent confrontations in the country. It mobilized more than 80,000 strikers, and caused several million euros worth of damage. Even after the major twist that saw the government cancel the taxe carbone, an Act IV of protests took place this Saturday. This is because we have not yet extracted ourselves from the rhetoric of damage. What comes back in this rhetoric is, to me, a triple confrontation. First, the spatial confrontation between the strikers and the police. Second, the language confrontation between the media, the independent yellow vest Facebook platform, and official speeches emanating from government representatives. Third, the ideological confrontation due to an exploitation from both ends of the political spectrum.

 

In this rhetoric of damage, infrastructure is at the heart of mystifications. The pepper spray, the barricade, the burning car, the cobblestone, the bus shelter and the street are the recurrent parts of the chorus. The broken Marianne-like statue and the spray-painted Arc de Triomphe probably crystallize even more so this rhetoric of damage, as the Republican monuments defiled by this impromptu crisis gone wrong. 

This piece is certainly not a glorification of vandalism. But I argue that we should move away from the opposition of strikers and end-users. We should move away from mystifications of monuments broken and streets disrupted, and start thinking about what happens - to people, and infrastructure - once the strike is over. In Barthes' words, myth is a language-robbery, which deprives the event of its History. It is depoliticized speech, which threatens to be politically instrumentalized. Myth is the metalanguage that 'acts' nothing. Myth is the last outcome this impromptu crisis needs right now. 

 

For a second, let's extract ourselves from the mystified semiology that this is fueling. For a second, let's tame the thirst for simplification. Let's refrain from materialist mythologies, and make sure that we properly move from confrontation about infrastructure to a dialogue about how to fix this mess. 

The release of national data on immigration counts. Now more than ever.

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September 2019 - On September 16, President Emmanuel Macron set the tone for the rest of his mandate - and the next election alike - regarding immigration, after he declared that “[t]he question is whether we want to be a bourgeois party or not. The bourgeois do not have a problem with it : they do not see it. The working class lives with it”. This immediately generated backlash and launched a divisive debate at the national Assemblée among left and right representatives, which will resume on October 9.

This shows the fear the executive has of a face-to-face with extreme-right Marine le Pen in the upcoming ballot, as was the case in 2017. It echoes how immigration played a central role in the Brexit movement, and has generally been the favorite motto of anti-globalists, eurosceptics, nationalists and anti-immigration political parties alike who wish to harden Europe’s borders.

 

More importantly, it underlines how hard facts count to prevent the excesses of constructed narratives about immigration. Such is the effort behind the regular release of data by the Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (INSEE). The National Statistics Bureau released a timely dataset with methodological explanations about immigration in France, a few days after the President’s declaration.

 

And this data release counts more than ever. A recent New York Times article underlined how myths about migrants are shaping political attitudes (NYT, June 20, 2018). Numbers matter in order to counter myths, particularly in countries where actual numbers are often exaggerated, feeding populist fears across several cities that somebody might be losing demographic ground to immigrant groups. To illustrate this, the NYT article referred to a Harvard set of large-scale transatlantic surveys and experiments in six countries [Alesina et al., 2018] which used the release of similar immigration data to underline how, comparatively, there was an average 15% gap between actual immigration numbers, and popular misperceptions about immigration. 

 

The same argument was developed by a set of Paris School of Economics macro-studies on European immigration trends, derived from Eurostat and OCDE datasets for years ranging from 1985 to 2015 [d’Albis et al., 2018]. Transparency and availability of data allowed these researchers to go beyond descriptive statistics, and engage in causal analysis that could potentially counter beliefs about the negative impacts of migration trends on local job and housing markets. Statistical significance can indeed be a first step towards debunking certain myths about immigration.

 

This also counts because France is the country par excellence where accessing data on ethnic and racial makeup is quite tricky, since it is forbidden by law to collect statistics on race, ethnicity, or religion. Immigration data is the only accessible type of demographic data there is to embrace how minorities fare across French cities. Such statistics parallel other efforts to map all documents about migrants produced by major national and metropolitan institutions like ministries, Mayor’s offices, court houses, hospitals, unions, associations, libraries and museums, which were started by the 2003 ‘Archives et immigration’ database project at the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration.

 

Additionally, immigration data is the only available data that supporters of a careful positioning of the country on the topic of immigration can invoke during this week’s debates at the Assembly. It is the only available data that allows to qualify fears by reminding that if extra-European migration in France averages annually 189,000 people, the portion of migrants in the total population grew from 4.4% in 1946 to only 7.1% in 2018 [6.5 million people], especially when Marine le Pen chants in the Assembly Chamber: “Yes or no to the ius soli? Yes or no to family reunification? Yes or no to controlling our borders again?”.


We know by now that transparent data allows to orient political decision making, and better inform public policy decisions. Now more than ever, France illustrates that data is politics. It also illustrates that we need hard facts against the nonsense of migrant quotas that were put on the table this week, which representatives of migrant and refugee organizations working on the ground across cities in France are already trying to mobilize against.