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.
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.
Slums are not a new phenomenon in Paris. From the ramshackle “Zone” north of the Gare de l’Est in the 19th century to expansive Portuguese and Spanish slums just after World War II to the Algerian settlements of Nanterre in the 1960s, the city has rarely been without large communities of stigmatized immigrants living in precarious housing. The Algerian and Portuguese slums of the 1960s were replaced with public housing. This time, the erasure of slums coincides with private development. In French, these structures were called “bidonvilles,” literally tin-can cities, and more directly “slums.” In the official terminology, they are “campements illicites,” i.e. illicit encampments. This label criminalizes the Roma inhabitants of these sites, and conjures up a vision of Roma itinerancy that is strong in the stigmatizing
imagination. Even if most of these populations have been sedentary, preferring to live in a single fixed site, for hundreds of years, most think of Roma people or “Gypsies” as a people always on the move. The repeated eviction and expulsion of Roma people in France creates this restless reality, but not due to any inherent desire of the inhabitants of the slums. The word “slum” allows for an insistence on the historical continuity of these spaces, an implication of extreme urban poverty, and a depiction of a precarious community clinging on to the margins.
My experiences in these communities are thanks to my ethnographic research on the lives and struggles of young Roma migrants. Beyond any abstruse discussion of academic practices, my work consists of presence — at the destruction of slums, in spaces of formal and informal work, at baptisms and stops at the kebab shop, and waiting for the train. I explore the intimate ways in which French migration policy, experienced by many as violent and contradictory, is lived, appropriated, and challenged. This means exploring forms of life and space always on the verge of being erased and displaced.
It may be hard to believe, but this slum, in the rapidly gentrifying city of Montreuil, will be transformed over the next few years into a private green space for a new condominium project. A desolate street next door, which female residents of the slum use as an open-air bathroom, will be a soccer field. The neighboring junkyard, the primary workplace for many male residents, will be turned into a five-story building with terraces overlooking Paris from three-bedroom apartments running up to 400,000 euros. Codrut’s uncle paid 500 euros as a deposit for his plot of land, and will give a 300-euro rent to the local headman — a distant cousin from their home village in Romania known as the chef, or the “boss” of the slum.
While the tenants of the condo complex will have recognized leases or mortgages, the entire settlement is categorized by the government as an “illicit encampment,” and can be evicted at any time within a 48-hour delay. They will be evicted, sometime during 2018, so that construction can proceed on the new development zone. The slum’s current location is far from ideal for future residents: it’s a 40-minute, three-change ride to the center of Paris. But it crouches in the bullseye of developers’ and politicians’ visions for the wholesale remaking of the banlieue, the Grand Paris Project.
The Grand Paris Project is the latest attempt to push the walls of Paris outwards one more time. In a 2007 speech, then President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his plan for a “new project for the large-scale development of a grand Paris.” Sarkozy, the same politician who promised to “scrub” the suburbs of “scum” a few days before the banlieue uprising of 2005, and who broke the official taboo on ethnic discourse in French politics by singling out “savage Roma settlements” for eviction, framed the project as an effort to “move beyond divisions separating us from one another.” If only in name, the municipal governments of Paris and the inner ring suburbs have been fused into a new entity, the “Metropolis of Grand Paris.” The French state is pouring upwards of 30 billion euros to build new metro lines connecting the suburbs with each other, and the center with far-flung banlieues.
Developers are already undertaking massive private projects to capitalize on this connectivity, which won’t be fully realized until at least 2030. The current average price to purchase a square meter of Parisian, intra-muros, property is 9,000 euros. Most families, even those with substantial means, are unable to purchase or even rent inside the city limits. The housing crisis is not just in the private market. Last year, over 700,000 families made a request for social housing. Only 80,000 or so places were assigned. It is still desirable, but no longer possible for many people to live “inside the walls.” The housing supply in Paris seems exhausted, and developers now look over the walls towards less dense, far cheaper property. The state managers of the project have promised the construction of over one million new apartments and homes over the next fifteen years. When these Roma families are expelled, and tenants haul Ikea furniture into their new apartments, the site will be within 10 minutes of a new tram line, 5 minutes from a metro station, and a 20-minute ride to the center. The appeal is clear.
The billboard on the side of the sales office blares out an erasure of the grey, industrial fringe where this slum clings on. The marketing-speak entices and invites: “Become a homeowner at the heart of an unmissable new neighborhood in Montreuil.” The centerpiece of this presentation is a glossy rendering of the transformed neighborhood. A leafy green boulevard, filled with kids playing and adults bicycling, stretches into the distance. Apartment buildings with ample balconies sit comfortably back from the street, and a café in the foreground beckons with white-shirted waiters and a bustling terrace. The public housing projects, Sunni mosque, disused gas works, and hard-discount supermarket that encircle the construction zone are nowhere to be seen, which either assumes their future destruction, or suggest that they may be undesirable components of the neighborhood.
It is too early to tell whether the Grand Paris Project will be Paris’ second “disemboweling,” a repeat of Georges-Eugène Haussman’s remaking of the metropolis in the 19th century. The aristocratic Haussman, working for Napoleon III, demolished the warren of streets at the heart of Paris to build the city that we know today — of bourgeois boulevards, a functional sewage system, and orderly apartment blocks. Haussman’s utopian vision was partially a top-down response to a series of workers’ revolts and epidemics that tore through the city for thirty years. In anticipation of the displacement the plan would create, Napoleon III grew the city to grow the housing market. The solution was very Grand Paris: an expansion of the boundaries of Paris by annexing, then displacing, poorer communities, including slums, outside the city walls.
A writer in the economic newspaper Les Echos labels the Grand Paris Project “the construction site of the century.” The Montreuil slum is just one of hundreds of locations seen as an empty screen onto which a certain vision of the future of Paris can be projected. The territory outside the walls and in the sights of the Grand Paris Project is not a blank slate —developers are building on top of decaying industry and rolling farmland, public housing towers and private garden cottages. The slums represent ongoing efforts to hold onto the interstices of the new, grand Paris amidst the violence of repressive, racialized immigration policy and rapid development sweeping the banlieue.
The slum in Montreuil is but one among many. There are around 20,000 people living in slums today in France. The fall of the Berlin Wall and conflicted opening of Europe’s internal borders allowed millions to migrate, as is their legal right, from poorer to richer countries, often from East to West. This liberalization has created economic prosperity, but also new forms of entrenched poverty. The size of the French slum population has been stable since the early 1990s. The living conditions, much less so. Life in the slums is marked by extreme poverty, scant school attendance or enrollment, a lack of documented employment, and limited access to health care.
It’s harder to think of this extreme precariousness as a crisis in need of definite solutions when the current situation has lasted for more than two decades. The situation has also been eclipsed by the so-called “migration crisis,” even though the two phenomena have much in common — slums and squats on the periphery of Paris, heavy police and humanitarian intervention. Most of all, they are both facets of the same paradox. These individuals, from South Sudan or south Bucharest, flee situations of poverty, discrimination, and violence by taking Europe at its word. They come for the Europe of press conferences and international agreements — a continent where goods and people circulate prosperously, where basic needs are met, where human rights are respected. This glossy presentation meets administrative delays, human bodies stretched out to sleep under metro viaducts, and the concrete reality of Fortress Europe.
Most importantly, it’s hard to act when discriminatory treatment is not a political issue, but has a long history of public consensus. Roma people were slaves in Romania until 1860. They were evicted from France under Louis XIV. Fast forward to today. Then-President Sarkozy’s inflammatory comments were widely denounced on the international, and sometimes domestic, stages after appearing in 2010. Yet other political figures made equally derogatory remarks, which passed either unnoticed or with a shrug: the comments may have been seen as poorly phrased, possibly insensitive, but with a core of truth. Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls (who later would be the country’s Prime Minister), 2013: “The occupants of these encampments [the slums] don’t want to integrate in our country, for cultural reasons or because they’re tied up in networks of begging and prostitution.” Daily newspaper Le Parisien, a year later: “Delinquency: The battle plan against young Romanians.” Socialist candidate for mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, September 2013: “Paris can’t become one big encampment.” And even, July 2013, Gille Bourdouleix, the mayor of Cholet, in what he later described as “a joke”: “One might say, Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.”
The momentary uproar (or silence) against these remarks had no noticeable effect on the speedy implementation of an eviction and deportation policy. Socialist or right-wing, the national policy of speedily evicting Roma settlements has continued, full steam ahead. I first started working in nine slums in the summer of 2015. Only one, that of Montreuil, is still standing as I’m writing this text. This policy creates a forced itinerancy. The public sees Roma people constantly on the move. This echoes a long-standing vision of Roma people as the quintessential nomads, Bohemians, wandering “gypsies.” Even though many Roma peoples have been sedentary for centuries, and many people living in slums do not identify in any way as Roma, the policy doesn’t erode but reinforces this stereotype.
November 2017 marked the eviction of a Roma migrant slum at Porte de la Chapelle at the northern border of Paris. It was the fourth eviction in 3 years at the same site, inhabited and constructed by the same families, by many of the same police officers. A substantial police presence — assault rifles, sanitary masks, truncheons and flak jackets — evicted the slum the day before at 6 AM. The families were loaded onto buses towards hotels, where many were put up for just one night. They often didn’t know where they were going. A public official commented to me, as I was busily taking notes that morning, “it unfortunately looks a little too ‘deportation-lite.’ But they should know that the goal isn’t deporting them, but helping them.”
The current base of the policy, put into place in 2012, glistened with shards of hope, a possible move away from the exhausting cycle of repeated evictions. It offered the promise of full “diagnostics” to assess rehousing needs before evictions, the financing of a social work platform to accompany families towards inclusion. The most recent policy, issued a few weeks ago, speaks of “résorption,” a full-scale transition of slums to stable housing. Nonetheless, the effect is striking: early morning, the sun rising over families frantically packing their bags, being loaded into buses, crying, heavily armed officers accompanying them. Bulldozers moving in before the buses leave.
Yet the persistence and desire for stability of the slum communities is remarkable. When I returned the next morning, I saw a mother I knew, begging for money outside the barricaded and destroyed slum site. Why was she there, I asked. “This is where I live.” Soon, it may be where I, and my fellow students and researchers, work. The eviction of the slum was supposedly hastened, even though many rehousing solutions were not in place, by the ongoing construction of the new university campus, the Campus Condorcet. The Grand Paris Project includes the construction of a shared research campus in Paris and the near-north suburbs. The graduate student offices of France’s most elite social sciences institutions will sit on top of the slum site, where 300 people once lived.
Lived, and persisted, held ground in the face of numerous swirling challenges. In some ways, these slums can be thought of as fortresses. Not because the walls that often surround them are meant to shut people out — the wall in Montreuil was built by the local authorities. Rather, they serve as spaces from which, against incredible pressures, residents carve out stability and security. After the eviction at Porte de la Chapelle, many families moved back into slums, some even starting a new slum. This could be seen as some sort of Roma cultural destiny, a desire for instability. Yet the families I spoke to talked about the ways in which the housing solutions proposed by the government were rarely adequate — far from where their kids went to school, far from places ideal for begging to make a few euros, far from their families in other slums or even in social housing.
The slums can also be thought of as fortresses, or protective structures, against the demolition and reconstruction that the Grand Paris Project promises. Many of the sites are, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, located on top of former Parisian fortifications. The Montreuil slum sits on top of the Fort de Rosny; there used to be a slum at the Fort d’Aubervilliers; on the Butte Pinson; the Porte de la Chapelle slum occupied ground where Paris’ last series of walls were built. When these communities are demolished, the Grand Paris comes in their wake. A new “Eco-City” of private housing and business in Bobigny, condos further east, an elite university campus in Paris, a hipster terrace and garden bar on the Plaine-Saint-Denis. Ironically, many of these new structures promise “community-based development,” and hold frequent meetings to solicit input from “neighbors” and locals.
I haven’t yet heard that the former occupants — European citizens, many of whom have lived in France for years — have been invited to these meetings. While there are numerous public structures, NGOs, and operations to control public space that delimit possible forms of integration, Roma people are rarely seen as members of the public, as locals, especially politically.
Fortress Europe, meet Fortress Paris. Paris is meant to be a global metropolis, but it’s worth asking how public officials and private businesses imagine this “globe.” The Roma residents of slums already occupy the landscape of the Grand Paris Project. They have made a global journey, making use of a right integral to a global Europe — to move across borders, to find a new life as Europeans beyond national lines. What kind of community will appear? What kind of community, or lack of community, does their forced circulation already represent?
Henry Shah is a master’s student in social anthropology at the École Normale Supérieure and the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Read more on his contributor page.