Macron and the banlieues: what turning point exactly?


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.