Whose Grand Paris? Roma Exclusion And Urban Expansion In Fortress Europe

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Article published in The Funambulist 16 (March-April 2018) Proletarian Fortresses. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Please note: all names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals mentioned in this article. All locations have been maintained to protect the integrity of the analysis.

Codrut woke up one morning in late September to the sound of two clanking hammers. The first hammer was pounding a foundation stake into the ground, two feet from his head, and in the city of Montreuil, two kilometers from Paris. His uncle had arrived from Romania late the night before, and had been working with his brother, Codrut’s father, to quickly erect a house for his wife and three children. Their work was slowed by the challenge of building on thick mud, which spread throughout the entire neighborhood after a heavy rain, and the difficulty of sneaking into the rubbish dump next door to find plastic sheeting, old doors and windows, and a metal pipe for wood-heating. Six men, all neighbors here and in their home village, helped out the brothers. Codrut’s mother and her sister-in-law put on a beef stew to boil. As the sun rose, mothers and daughters walked towards the bus station to beg for money on the metro. Fathers and sons hopped into cars, with French or Romanian or Bulgarian plates, to look for salvageable materials at a set of rubbish dumps nearby. The rhythm of the second hammer rolled out all day from over a three-meter white metal wall, topped with cyclone fencing, that surrounds the slum where Codrut and 300 other people have lived for the past two years.

Shah Funambulist (4)
Roma slum in Montreuil. / Photograph by Henry Shah (2017).

Paris is a city of walls. This slum community is two miles from the Périphérique highway, a loop of concrete and traffic that cuts Paris from its suburbs. The city is known in the popular imagination as “intra-muros,” inside the walls. The entire suburbs, the banlieues, home to 10 million, are often called the “extra-muros,” outside the walls. The Romans built the first wall almost 2,000 years ago to keep out invading “barbarians.” An observer who never traverses each set of walls, each one a few kilometers further out from the center, might think that the barbarians have never left. Paranoia floods the public discourse. Prominent members of the press and politicians regularly describe the extra-muros as no-go zones and even the battlefield of an ongoing civil war between (non-white) residents and the police. The banlieue is also home to over eight thousand people, mostly European citizens of Roma ethnicity, living in slums. In this article, I hold up the resilience of these slums and their residents to identify the violent contradictions of the latest effort to pacify and gentrify the Parisian periphery, the Grand Paris Project.