For two thousand years, the city of Paris has been defined by the implacable logic of center and periphery, of included and excluded. Civilization, with its high culture and imposing monuments, was nurtured within a series of concentric walls dating back to Gallo-Roman times that culminated in the 1970s with the construction of an encompassing concrete highway known as the Périphérique. Nearly a half-century later, the Périphérique remains a powerful physical and psychological barrier between Paris proper—still referred to by the French as “Paris intra muros”—and the suburbs, or banlieues, beyond.
Before I moved to the banlieue of Pantin, a town of about 55,000 people on the northeastern edge of Paris, I was unaware of how much this logic shaped my perception of the city and its environs. I remember clearly the first time I emerged beyond the Périphérique. I had traveled just a few stops on the Metro from my Paris apartment, yet I felt like Alice blinking on the other side of the looking glass. My mental Paris compass, deprived of its usual cardinal points, was spinning.
As a transplanted New Yorker, though, I soon found the kind of energy in Pantin that I’d loved during the years I lived in the East Village in the 1990s, before expensive condominiums and Starbucks began pushing out the old railroad walkups, the bodegas, and the Polish diners. As I got to know Pantin better—with its diverse population, ethnic food shops, and street banter in Bangladeshi, Arabic, and Chinese—I began to feel more at home there than I ever did in Paris. Within the coddled confines of the City of Light, I was an American ex-pat. In Pantin, I’m just another immigrant, if a privileged one, in the administrative department of Seine-Saint-Denis where about a third of residents are immigrants.
Since I moved here in 2013, the town has changed dramatically. It’s still diverse, and Pantin’s mayor, Bertrand Kern, is intent on keeping it that way; he has ensured that all new residential construction—and there is a lot of it—respect the town’s relatively high proportion of 38 percent subsidized, affordable housing. But there are also more and more young Parisians, attracted to a town that is not shy about branding itself as the “Brooklyn of Paris” and has made a concerted effort to attract members of the creative class and develop industries in design, fashion, and the fine arts. So, while Pantin is home to the undulating Courtillières housing project, recently renovated but still inhabited by a largely poor immigrant population, it is also home to one of the world’s most élite art galleries, Thaddaeus Ropac, currently exhibiting monumental works by the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, and to a vast complex of workshops set up by the luxury brand Hermès.
I used to have to go into Paris to get a good artisan loaf of bread, fine French cheeses, or organic groceries. I can now get these items in Pantin. But I can also still get Chinese, North African, and South Asian groceries, and the population at the local open-air market remains very mixed. From my apartment, I see the jutting roofline of the Philharmonie de Paris, a grand concert hall designed by French architect Jean Nouvel that sits just inside the Périphérique and is swathed in tiles that give the illusion of differently shaded gray birds taking flight. The building’s architecture, location, and eclectic programming are meant to bridge the divide between the high culture of Paris and those who have historically been excluded from it. Still, for many of my neighbors in Pantin, Paris, though near enough to glimpse, remains a world away; for many Parisians, traveling to the Philharmonie is as close as they are comfortable to the banlieues just beyond.
In medieval times, the banlieue designated a one-league-wide ring outside a feudal lord’s fortress-city over which his interdictions, or bans, applied. Over the past several decades, the word has too often meant a place of banishment.
During the 1950s and 1960s, immigrants from former French colonies in Africa and the Maghreb found work in postwar suburban factories and housing in vast subsidized apartment blocks. When the factories closed in the 1980s and 1990s, these immigrants were left marooned, cut off from the rest of French society and bereft of adequate public services. A generation of frustrated youth grew up that felt, not unreasonably, abandoned by the French republic and discriminated against for their Muslim names, their darker skin, their poverty, and their lack of skills. In 2015, Philippe Galli, then the police commissioner of Seine-Saint-Denis, estimated the Muslim population of the department at 700,000, or about 45 percent of the population. Muslims make up less than 9 percent of France’s total population of 65 million. In Seine-Saint-Denis, one third of the population is poor—the highest share in the greater Paris area, and in France overall—with the proportion of people living below the poverty line in some public housing complexes reaching as high as 60 percent. Unemployment in Seine-Saint-Denis is over 12 percent, and nearly 30 percent of young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four are unemployed.
In addition, France’s Muslim population has experienced heightened discrimination, with every new terrorist attack prompting Islamophobic rhetoric and hate crimes, as well as abusive ethnic profiling by police. In 2017, Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front party, made it to the second run-off round of the French presidential election on an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-European Union platform. Many of those who live in the banlieues have lost faith in the French government’s ability and willingness to improve their lives. Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche! party did poorly last year in the historically left-wing administrative département of Seine-Saint-Denis. Many immigrant voters had been deeply disappointed by his predecessor, François Hollande, whom they’d helped elect in 2012. They feared that Macron, who was the economy minister in Hollande’s government, would do as little for them as Hollande had.
At times, frustration with the government’s persistent neglect of France’s poor suburbs has boiled over, with the ensuing violence reinforcing stereotypes of out-of-control minority youth and eliciting more punitive responses from authorities. In the fall of 2005, riots swept across France after two Muslim teenagers were electrocuted to death in a transformer station in the northeastern Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois. Nicolas Sarkozy, serving as the interior minister, responded by declaring a “zero tolerance” policy towards urban violence and announcing his plans for an increased police force. His tough talk of cleaning up the banlieues with a Kärcher, a well-known brand of power-washer, and clearing them of “racaille” (thugs or riffraff) helped him win the French presidency in May 2007. That September, he launched a less punitive program, which he called Grand Paris. It was time, he said, to “create true cities in our banlieues, with public spaces, services and places where people can socialize,” concluding that Paris and its periphery “is the same region, the same space.”
Yet, a decade after the 2005 riots, a slither of the same anger and frustration surfaced to strike Paris in the form of the terrorist attacks of January and November 2015, perpetrated by Muslim immigrant-origin petty criminals from poor neighborhoods who had been radicalized in prison. Shortly after the January 2015 attacks, Fox News offered a map of what it claimed were officially designated, Muslim-dominated “no-go” zones in northeastern Paris and the banlieues beyond. The network was subsequently forced to issue an apology, since no such official zones exist, but the map reinforced the idea of the banlieues as places to fear and shun.
Macron has promised to modernize French society and economy, by bringing necessary reforms to what he clearly sees as a sclerotic society. In order to accomplish his aims, he will need to extend his attention to the banlieues. If he fails to deliver economic opportunity and dignity to those who feel his policies favor the rich—whether small-town and rural white working-class citizens who’ve been sold the idea that immigrants are stealing their jobs and benefits, or immigrants and their French-born children in the banlieues who feel that, no matter how hard they try, they’ll never be considered French enough—France will continue to be torn apart by the bogeys of far-right populism and Islamist radicalization.
Over the past several years, France has implemented a variety of initiatives aimed at bridging the divide between the inside and the outside of the Périphérique. The idea is to facilitate mobility between different points within the greater Paris area so that people can more easily access opportunities outside their immediate neighborhoods and spur economic development beyond the center of Paris. The idea is to create a dynamic, egalitarian metropolis that provides multiple, connected nodes of economic and cultural activity, eliminating the included-excluded logic that has defined Paris for over two millennia. If this process is successful, the banlieues will cease to exist.
In 2011, France’s then minister for urban affairs, Maurice Leroy, and the then president of the Île-de-France, Jean-Paul Huchon, signed an agreement to build a vast new public transportation network called the Grand Paris Express. Slated to be completed by 2030, the Grand Paris Express will boast fully automated rapid commuter trains running on 200 kilometers of new track, serving sixty-eight new stations and connecting with the existing Paris Metro, tramway, and suburban rail systems. The idea is not only to speed access to central Paris from the far-flung suburbs and vice-versa, but also to connect whole territories of what is now outer Paris to one another, saving commuters, who now have to go into Paris on one line and back out on another, hours of time. The new stations are conceived as hubs that are destinations in themselves, hosting libraries, co-working spaces, art galleries, and other amenities.
In October 2015, France further democratized regional transportation in Paris by abolishing progressively tariffed zones from the Île-de-France’s monthly Navigo transportation pass. It suddenly became possible for people in the region to travel seamlessly and at no additional cost over a wide area that covers the Paris Metro, the suburban RER rail system, the national rail service within the Île-de-France region, all public buses and tramways, along with Vélib bicycles and Autolib electric cars. A monthly Navigo pass currently costs a little over 75 euros. For the first time, people who commuted long distances from far-flung suburbs did not pay more for their transportation because modest incomes made it impossible for them to live closer to their jobs. Grand Paris became accessible to all.
Even more ambitiously, 2016 saw the genesis of the Métropole du Grand Paris, a huge, state-sponsored effort to transform Paris into a twenty-first century metropolis that will allow France to compete more effectively in an era in which global cities are the drivers of economic growth and anchors of political power. The population of Paris proper is a little more than 2 million. The population of Grand Paris as currently configured is nearly 8 million, while the population of the Île-de-France region is about 12 million, a little less than one-fifth of the population of France. The Grand Paris project makes obsolete the familiar map that depicts Paris as a circle of twenty numbered districts bisected horizontally by the Seine into the Left and Right Banks and surrounded, seemingly, by blankness.
Also in 2016, the mayors of cities in the greater Paris region launched “Let’s invent the Metropolis of Grand Paris”— a call for innovative architectural and urbanization projects. Fifty-one projects were selected last year and an additional three are still under consideration. They range from the development of an urban agriculture site in Morangis to the conversion of an abandoned public swimming pool in the city of Saint-Denis into a multi-use space hosting a restaurant, a co-working space, a hotel, and a performance venue. These new projects are expected to generate more than 7 billion euros in investment, create more than 800,000 new housing units, and spur job creation and new leisure opportunities.
Most recently, the French advertising agency BETC, which moved its headquarters out of Paris to Pantin in 2016, has joined with Enlarge Your Paris, a group dedicated to increasing awareness of the wealth of natural and cultural offerings in the greater Paris region, to put out a new guidebook called Le Guide des Grands Parisiens, or Guide for Grand Parisians. Published in February, the guidebook aims to obliterate the historic logic of included versus excluded by remapping Paris such that the Périphérique no longer defines its boundaries. No doubt, it will take more than a new handbook to break down the physical, social, and psychological barrier the Périphérique represents, but a radical reimagining of Paris isn’t a bad place to start.
The new Guide for Grand Parisians “is a guide to the present and the future,” says Rémi Babinet, the president both of BETC and of the Endowment for Art and Culture of the Grand Paris Express. “It proposes quite simply and radically to reconsider our representation of Paris. It’s a new imaginary, a new mental map that helps render more concrete the Grand Paris of tomorrow.” Enlarge Your Paris’s co-founder Renaud Charles has said that the book is “is not a guidebook. It’s a manifesto.”
For this new manifesto, Charles came up with eight districts that ignore the peripheral boundary of Paris proper, giving them entirely new names: Fabrique (Factory), Rooftop, Océan Verte (Green Ocean), Hyper-Museum, Petite Riviera, Street Gallerie, Delta, and Square XXL. These initially puzzling and fanciful names take on meaning in their locales. Rooftop refers to a series of buttes that offer sweeping views of Paris, while Océan Verte includes picturesque villages in the Valley of the Chevreuse, the Rambouillet forest, and the Château of Versailles. This clever rebranding may not change the sociological facts on the ground, but it does force a mental remapping of Paris as a collection of new geographic districts. The result is that the guidebook user finds under one rubric a hip restaurant near Bastille, say, associated with an urban farm in Saint-Denis—a city not long ago made infamous to TV news viewers around the world by a pre-dawn police raid that routed terrorists involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris. The guide thus challenges reductive attitudes to the troubles of the banlieues and encourages residents and visitors alike to reimagine a Grand Paris that is more than the sum of its inner and outer parts.
Take the Fabrique, which covers a swath that begins deep in Paris and extends northeastward on either side of the Canal de l’Ourq. The people who live in this old industrial area are already forging their own Grand Paris. There is a restaurant that collects compost from people in the neighborhood, grows vegetables, and raises chickens; a microbrewery with a cobble-stoned courtyard where young families gather around picnic tables and live music plays on sunny Sunday afternoons. There are artist studios in rough spaces that are still affordable, and local government-supported workshops for artisans. Music clubs feature eclectic line-ups. A pop-up urban farm sets up seasonal, portable raised beds on abandoned wastelands, and a locavore market delivers fresh produce—all produced in Île-de-France—by barge on the canal. There are also neighborhood nonprofits created by immigrant women that run community gardens, help recent arrivals learn French and express their particular cultures with pride through cuisine, theater, and dance.
BETC’s Babinet explains that he wanted to collaborate with Enlarge Your Paris to publish the new guide because the public conversation about Grand Paris was either all about the political tussles over its administration or about building physical infrastructure. “What disappeared from these two narratives about Grand Paris was the inhabitants themselves,” he says, “and so we asked ourselves how we could, already, talk about the inhabitants of Grand Paris.” Focused on destinations and ambiances created and inhabited by local residents, the map recalls the psychographic map of Paris created in 1957 by the Situationist author of Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, which has no discernible relationship to a standard map of Paris. The Guide for Grand Parisians invites users to discover new areas without regard for the administrative borders they have crossed or whether or not they have traveled under or over the Périphérique. The new guide manages to be at once an invitation to permeability and mobility and a celebration of the quirky and the local.
Of course, there are many places and perspectives missing in this first edition of the guide, but Charles and his partner at Enlarge Your Paris, Vianney Delourme, vow to keep adding to and improving subsequent editions. One longs to hear more from the banlieue-born children of immigrants from Africa and the Maghreb, for example, and from the first-generation immigrants themselves. But the guide is a revolutionary start to think differently about one of the most mythic cities in the world. The more people become familiar with what’s really happening on the periphery of Paris—by visiting, eating a meal, going for a hike, listening to a concert, or attending an art opening—the less the populist far-right’s xenophobic fear-mongering machine will be able to exploit the bogeyman of the banlieues. And the more the people who live in the greater Paris area can participate in the invention of their own future as part of “Grand Paris,” the less that future will have to fear from those whom Paris has historically relegated to its periphery.
In a speech on urban policy delivered last November, Emmanuel Macron gave a hint about his vision for the Metropolis of Grand Paris. “Metropolitanization is an opportunity,” but, he said, it’s also “a challenge because these productive and successful centers have in their heart neighborhoods in profound difficulty.” He spoke of tackling discrimination and crime, and of improving education and access to transportation and jobs as the keys to providing underprivileged populations with new opportunities. It was imperative, he said, that the state help “this new generation, this new ambition” not with government handouts, which, he maintained in true Macron style, people don’t want, but by facilitating “full access to the Republic” for all. That should include culture and beauty, too, he said, because “the role of the state, it’s also to restore dignity to daily life.”
In its limited way, that is what the new Guide for Grand Parisians seeks to do: restore dignity to a periphery that the city of Paris has long treated as an area of darkness, bereft of culture and anything else worthwhile. Shortly after February’s publication of the guide, Stéphane Troussel, president of the General Council of Seine-Saint-Denis, tweeted a photo of himself meeting Macron about Grand Paris. There, on the table in front of them, was a copy of the new guidebook.
Mira Kamdar, a former Paris-based editorial board member of The New York Times, is the author of the memoir Motiba’s Tattoos: A Granddaughter’s Journey from America into her Indian Family’s Past (2000) and the nonfiction book Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the World’s Largest Democracy and the Future of our World (2008). Her new book, India in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, has just been published. (April 2018)