Here There Be Dragons: Broadcasting Identity and Security in the Parisian Region



In 1920s Paris, a police unit was formed with the purpose of cutting down on low level offenses like homelessness, public drunkenness, petty theft, and immigration violations. This unit was called the North African Brigade. As Mathieu Rigouste previously discussed in issue 8 of the Funambulist, in 1961, then police chief Maurice Papon used the newly minted state of emergency legislation to impose a curfew on Algerians in Paris. When FLN activists defied this curfew, police officers murdered them by the dozens. In 2004 the French National Assembly passed a law banning religious garments and symbols in schools and public space. In 2010 the French National Assembly passed a law banning face coverings in public space. Both of these laws disproportionately affected observant Muslim women.

In 1749, François-Jacques Guillotte, a Parisian police officer and encyclopedia enthusiast, submitted Mémoire sur la reformation de la police de France (Treatise on the Reformation of France’s Police) to King Louis XV. In this lengthy police reform proposal he dreamed of a world wherein a person could be found and controlled in the same way that one could find a house. Essentially a menace could be found in the city as easily as you find your way on a map. This would be achieved by every person in all Paris being required to carry some kind of identification. Although, state identification cards don’t exactly work this way, in some ways identity does.

It only takes a look through policing policies past and present, in Paris and far beyond, to see how intimately identity — be it race, gender, religion, or nationality — and security are tied together. In terms of security, identity markers function like an address but instead of revealing where you are in space, they reveal where you are on the spectrum of those who should be protected and those who should be policed. Your identity markers signal to the people around you what kind of protections you should be afforded and what kind of control you should be subjected to, not just at the hands of the state but also by your fellow citizens.

After the 2016 elections in the United States, the triumph of the Republican party, led conservatives and liberals alike to disparage the use of identity politics. Identity politics is coalition building and advocating for political inclusion on behalf of a community. The whole political spectrum is also up in arms either defending or denouncing the January 2017 ban on Muslim immigrants, targeting seven African and Middle Eastern countries. Identity politics are a key element both to enacting and resisting this ban. Security politics, the series of policies and cultural norms that shape our military and policing practices, never fear the threat of elimination. However, without identity politics, there can be no security politics.

For over a year I’ve been thinking about this relationship, security as a function of identity, and pestering other people about it too. I’m interested in how this relationship affects people’s daily lives and they ways that they access and imagine public space. In the first season of my podcast, Here There Be Dragons, I asked seven New York natives about their experiences navigating their identities through their cities and how they envisioned their own safety. In these conversations we talked about violence, but also about gentrification, social housing and immigration. Each of these themes always fed back into feeling safe or vulnerable.

In season two, I wanted to push the topic further. I spoke to thirty-two natives, transplants, and immigrants in the Paris metropolitan region. Parisians and New Yorkers had very similar concerns but shifted for their specific cultural and political contexts. In this text I’m going to share some of the discussions from the first half of the season, which focus on terror, mixité, communitarianism, and gentrification.

Soon after the terror attacks on November 13, 2015, it was discovered that a number of the assailants had lived in the Parisian banlieue Saint Denis. This discovery lead Manuel Valls, former prime minister and failed presidential candidate, to claim that Saint-Denis and places where there are high concentrations of poverty and social exclusion, were examples of how Paris and so France had created “apartheid.” He then went on to explain that the only way to break this trend was to promote social mixité.

The concept of mixité has been part of French urban policy since the mid 1990s. Mixité differs from the concepts of diversity and multiculturalism in the US and the UK, as it focuses on mixed income communities rather than racially diverse ones. However, since immigrants, especially from France’s former colonies, joined the French working class nearly a century ago, mixité also includes a camouflaged element of race and ethnicity. From my interviews I noticed that the state’s concept of mixité and residents’ expectations of it were very different. Two women of color with whom I spoke, one from Réunion Island and the other from the eastern Parisian banlieue Fontenay-sous-Bois, told me that mixité was a source of safety for them. They felt that diverse neighborhoods increased social inclusion across community lines. However, the goal of the State does not appear to be blending communities but dispersing undesirable ones in space.

In 2000, the Solidarity and Urban Renewal Act was passed as a means of using government intervention to engineer mixité within French municipalities. The act demands that municipalities work towards 20% of their housing stock being social housing. If the municipalities did not work towards this goal they would be fined at increasing rates. However, some wealthy municipalities made it plainly clear they would prefer and could afford to pay the fine rather than investing in social housing. In order to combat this attitude within Paris, city hall encouraged social housing firms like Paris Habitat to make an effort to disperse social housing within wealthier arrondissements like the 16th.

Myers Funambulist
“For the interviews I met with thirty-two residents of the Parisian region. I met them in bars, cafés, their homes, offices, and studios for an hour to talk about their experiences in and perceptions of their city.” / Photograph by Silvia Sabino (2016)

However relocating low-income families to high-income neighborhoods presents its own set of complications. Once low-income families move to wealthier neighborhoods they face not only the suspicion of their neighbors but also local shops and amenities that they are unable to afford. Meanwhile in municipalities like Saint-Denis, landlords of affordable housing units are bypassing applications from low-income tenants in favor of middle class ones in the name of creating mixed-income communities. Mixité, although well intentioned, can create a number of pitfalls for low-income residents, not the smallest among them being community. Some Marxist detractors have argued that mixité destroys working class communities, making it harder for them to organize while those who can afford it recede further and further into ghettos of wealth.

However when it comes to accusations of disregard for integration, the rich are rarely at the receiving end. The concept of mixité is also tinted with expectations of integration. However the standard of full integration in France is often represented as full assimilation. This differs from Anglophone ideas of multiculturalism in that it discourages all cultural practices that deviate from national cultural norms. In terms of immigration, this means abandoning all foreign customs in favor of traditional French ones. In terms of mixité, this means integration into the behavior of wealthier neighbors, which is often impossible. Those who fail to integrate to these standards are accused of creating disruptive communities, an act called “communitarianism.”

Like mixité, the concept of communitarianism is also spacial. City Hall programs like Vital’Quartier, which seek to disperse mono-commercial hubs, are again aimed at the question of distribution in space. For one interviewee, who moved to France as a young child from Benin, City Hall’s focus on Chateau Rouge was particularly disturbing. She explained that for decades Chateau Rouge has been seen as an African neighborhood, not because Black Parisians live there but because of the shops and salons that sold African products and created a space for people of African descent to circulate. The city’s desire to disperse the shops of Chateau Rouge would also dispossess Black Parisians of seeing themselves and their culture validated in public space.

If you can only become integrated by assimilating the history, traditions, and appearances of the majority is it even possible for non-white non-Catholic citizens to fully integrate? This condition is what makes racialized and non-Catholic religious groups more vulnerable to accusations of communitarianism than wealthy white French groups.

So what would it look like for wealthier classes to integrate into working class communities, thus liberating themselves from “wealthy ghettos?” Wouldn’t that be gentrification? In Paris, a popular line among those who are pro-gentrification is that it actively promotes mixité. However, in many ways, gentrification is the inverse of mixité. The goal of mixité is to permanently house low-income families in wealthier areas, however, because of the expense of local amenities these families are still dependent on working-class neighborhoods for resources.

The gentrification of a neighborhood also means the gentrification of commerce, bringing the types of bars, grocery stores, and other shops that higher income groups prefer. The presence of this commerce increasingly attracts wealthier groups, which increases the rents in the neighborhood. This means that while the mixité of low-income people in wealthy neighborhoods is supposed to be permanent the mixité of gentrification is temporary. Increased development and government investment in gentrifying neighborhoods also shows that city hall is actively invested in supporting gentrifiers while in wealthy neighborhoods there is no support for low-income residents beyond housing.

If this persists Paris will become a rich city dotted with disconnected low-income islands and without resources even those will disappear. For another of my interviewees who had lived in the Bastille neighborhood, just as the new Opera Bastille was being built, gentrification also brings up the question of dispersal and neighborhood identity. He said that after selling his apartment in Bastille and moving to the eastern banlieue Montreuil, that young people in his neighborhood all considered Paris in general to be a rich bourgeois city. Even though Paris was just a metro stop away, they believed that there was no place for them there.

If what Valls insisted is true and extremism is product of a life lived in exclusion and poverty, what will policies of pro-mixité, anti-community, and pro-gentrification resolve? In most Western cultures, like France and the United States, who you are and the history of how you came to be French or American has a direct impact on how you are policed and how you are displaced. In cities like Paris, that are not just cities but symbols of the nation, the enactment of security as a function of identity takes on a symbolic status as well. The impact of public policy as it relates to mixité, communitarianism, and gentrification is a performance that demonstrates to the nation the hierarchy of value placed on different citizens. The second season of Here There Be Dragons will explore the impact of these ideologies on residents of the Parisian region. Through their personal experiences listeners will come to a more intimate understanding of how residents construct their lives in the face of these policies. The podcast is also my thesis for my master’s degree in city planning. By using podcasting as a means of distributing my research beyond the walls of an elite institution, I hope to open the project to questions and comments to a public that goes beyond my thesis committee. Security and identity affect all of us and understanding their impact takes all of our input.