Reappropriating the Banlieue Space in Nanterre




The banlieue (French suburbs) space consists in an organized classist and racist urban segregation. In this text, Mogniss H. Abdallah, one of the key figures of the 1980s anti-racist struggle in France, shows how undignifying state-funded housing were reappropriated by their residents in the Paris banlieues.

Translated from French by Robin Jaslet.


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Aerial photographs of the Petit Nanterre in 1968 (left) and 1971 (right). The first one shows one of the shantytowns, destroyed in the second that shows the Gutenberg transit quarters at the bottom. / Created by Léopold Lambert (2017) based on IGN photographs.

On March 4, 1960, French television broadcasted “Gennevilliers Bidonville,” a series of documentary reports underpinning the spatial and cultural distance which supposedly separates the miserable, distrustful and sad inhabitants of a slum from a couple of Algerians wearing their “European” sunday best, enjoying a worker comfort modelled on that of the envied “middle classes” in social housing (HLM), while amiably conversing with Pierre Desgraupes, then star host of the news show Cinq Colonnes à la Une. This, in the midst of the war of independence, while the Algerian self-determination referendum looms ever closer. The Zaïd spouses, all set in their spotless interiors, whose lifestyle “resembles ours” (sic), symbolize all at once assimilation as a precondition for “definitive” rehousing, the very possibility of leaving unsanitary housing conditions — they recount having lived in a slum for ten years — and, in the end, a fulfilled residential itinerary. Desgraupes underlines this further:”A few hundred meters separate Mister and Misses Zaïd from these men [living in the shantytown], a few hundred meters which are a century, it is up to us to help them across.”

In the collective conscience of migrants, Algerian migrants in particular, the opposition between “their place” and “our place” has long been internalized. “We recreated the old pattern: in Algeria we had the European village on one side and we had the douar on the other” recalls Chérif Cherfi, an Algerian man who arrived in France in 1958 at the age of 10, and lived with his family for a time in the shantytown of La Folie in Nanterre, “in houses with wooden planks as flooring.” “Next to us were stone houses, made of gritstone. We could tell we weren’t at home,” he remembers while strolling through old banlieues allotment houses, before adding, in a self-evident manner “it was architecture speaking” (Cheikh Djemaï, Nanterre, une mémoire en miroir, 2006).

The new “urban subjectivity” of migrants’ children ///

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Rock Against the Police newspaper distributed at the May 15, 1980 concert at the Cité Allée Jean Couzy in Vitry-sur-Seine. / Courtesy of Agence IM’média.

The Cherfi family moved several times from social housing complex (cité) to another one, and as adolescent, he often crossed through the campus of the new Nanterre university as a shortcut between different micro-neighborhoods where his friends lived. “It used to be our playing field” he assures, while reminding that the university had been built on an abandoned military aviation area, in immediate proximity to the shantytown. A way for him to assure that he wasn’t an intruder bothering the students. In so doing, he then begins to confusedly advocate for sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city,” which was largely commented on campus during May 68. He also begins a militant activity within the first Palestine Committee of Nanterre, founded after the « Naksa » (the onset of occupation by Israeli military in Cisjordania, the Gaza Strip, the Sinaï and the Golan heights in june 1967). The meetings take place at the home of Gilbert Mury, in one of these pavilions which thus far seemed inaccessible. Chérif gets acquainted with ”pro-chinese” marxist-leninists, socially-minded christians, young workers, high-schoolers, or university students. He also happens upon teenagers from the André Doucet neighborhood, one of the first transit quarters (cité de transit) erected during the end of the 1950s in order to temporarily re-house some 10,000 inhabitants of Nanterre’s shantytowns in search of a viable roof over their heads. The intermingling of these diverse social circles will then develop into an acute sense of circulation within the city and eclectic networking, against the logics of reclusion and shelving intended by forced rehousing policies. Renamed “La Maison Peinte,” a “small lousy pavilion” loaned by the association La Cimade near the former shantytown of Les Pâquerettes, the house will serve as a logistic space for concrete action between 1970 and 1976.

It is from that moment that we can speak of a new “urban subjectivity” of migrants’ children, in their break from their parents’ (supposed or proven) passivity. Their entrance into (re)housing struggles will not only be concerned with improving that which is already there — which some termed “adjusting misery” — but will rather contest the disciplinary shackles of transit quarters and Sonacotra quarters (foyers) for “isolated” workers.

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Rock Against Police newspaper distributed at the February 21, 1981 concert at the Cité Balzac in Vitry-sur-Seine. / Courtesy of Agence IM’média.

A public-private partnership founded in 1956 under the auspices of the Interior ministry who had a mind to relocate Algerians in order to better control them, Sonacotra expands to the entirety of immigrant workers and will ultimately number 397 quarters in all of France. The actions of these young activists allow a glimpse into further claims concerning diversified rehousing policies which take into account the desires of those chiefly concerned. Without waiting for the State or the municipal response, some will take advantage of their new networks of sociability to find “digs” in town, with a girl- or boyfriend, or with cousins.

From Worker Quarters (foyers) to Transit Quarters (cités), How to Decompartmentalize Struggles for (Re-)Housing? ///

In transit quarters, a drastic set of internal regulations “forbid the tenant, housed on a precarious, temporary and momentary basis, to shelter one of more persons without express authorization by the governing body.” Any offender risks being evicted from the premises, without any preliminary judicial decision. This ban brings to mind those of the University campus — particularly Article 6 concerning outside visits, as well as Article 15 prohibiting “political or religious propaganda in the residence” — which brought about the student outburst of May 68.

The same goes for Sonacotra quarters where, nonetheless, there remains generally a collective socio-cultural space. You nevertheless have to ask permission to the managers, often ex-colonial military personnel, before any gathering occurs. These managers, on the other hand, have the right to carry out random controls in the room, night and day. In the face of the arbitrary, of the hikes in “rent” — in fact residents are not statutory tenants, instead they pay a “fee” or “occupation compensation” — and of the appalling housing conditions, committees of residents form here and there, and later coalesce as the Struggling Quarters Coordination Committee. Between 1974 and 1979, residents committees of over 120 quarters nationwide adhere to and adopt a common platform of demands in a kind of internal counter-regulations.

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Gutenberg transit quarters in 1983. In the background, a Sonacotra quarters and social housing complex. / Courtesy of Agence IM’média.

Made public in December 1975, the platform calls for, among other claims, a lowering of the monthly rent by 100 francs (around 16 euros), “visiting rights 24/7, regardless of
sexual differences, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, official tenant’s status and the replacement of all managers by tenants.” They are supported by a collective of lawyers, as well as a group of architects who, after their investigation into the “spatial and architectural characteristics of the quarters,” determines them to be “incompatible with the minimal norms for social housing.” In order to break the isolation and to counter nationality-based segregation of residents, the cultural commission of the Coordination organises festive and multinational open-house days in the struggling quarters as well as in several transit quarters whose inhabitants share most of the “Sonac’s” (nickname for those living in Sonacotra quarters) demands, and who have begun rent strikes. In transit quarters, there are no playgrounds, no spaces planned for cultural activities. Never mind that. Makeshift stages are installed on vacant lots in the quarters or in their immediate vicinity, where children usually let their ingenuity roam free — many play by tinkering tents made of bric-a-brac as if to say “I finally have my own place.” Theater troupes and music bands perform there and make visible a new configuration of immigration. Among them, the women, mothers or daughters, protagonists of the play Que les larmes de nos mères deviennent une légende (May the tears of our mothers become a legend), performed by the troupe La Kahina in the transit quarters of Grand Prés (Nanterre). Or the young “lascars” (hoodlums); the play Week-end à Nanterre performs in 1977 and 1979 in several quarters, giving way to strongly emotional moments both for the younger ones who are moved to be able to perform, as well as for the elders who, in turn, feel proud of them, even though they remain somewhat nonplussed by their behavior, too westernized for them, and struggle to understand their jargon.

One must keep in mind that passageways existed between the inhabitants of the Sonacotra quarters and those of the transit quarters, some of which were also managed by Sonacotra. Many know each other from their time in the shantytowns. Mothers sometimes prepared dishes in the communal kitchen of Sonacotra quarters, sometimes for the residents, sometimes to bring back to the transit quarters. Younger people sometimes came over to make use of the collective equipments, even if only just to take a shower. Relations, however, are tense, particularly since an ever growing number of residents have been sacked from their workplace. Adding to this the fact that the quarters are slowly turning into a battlefield due to the Sonacotra managers refusing to negotiate and threatening the struggling residents of collective eviction.

On June 22, 1979, the Garges-les-Gonnesses Sonacotra quarters (northern banlieue of Paris), located at the crossroads of the council high rises and the countryside, is evacuated by the police. The evicted residents immediately take to a hill towering over the closed quarters, now cordoned off by riot police, and build a tent encampment. The vacant lot, owned by the municipality, was reserved for the construction of a school. The occupation last all summer. Among the flow of visitors to the camp, a delegation of metal workers fighting against the closing of plants in Longwy (Lorraine) attracts the attention of the neighboring banlieue youth who had also been present to support the evicted residents. They recognize the insurgent steelworkers who only months before had, filmed by TV cameras, “kidnapped” their idol, the rock star Johnny Hallyday in order to show him the threatened Usinor metalworks. The ensuing discussion reaches the idea that the hoodlums, with their strongly stated rockers look, would hire a bus with the help of Sans Frontière (“a newspaper by and for immigrants”), in order to go to the Mont Saint Martin Sonacotra quarters (Lorraine), on September 15-16, 1979, where a large and festive activist gathering is taking place. Their intervention, along with that of theater troupes (such as Mohamed Travolta and Nedjma), will allow for new ties to be created between Sonacotra residents and inhabitants of the nearby social housing complex, operated by La Familiale, a Usinor branch that threatens to deduct rent directly from the worker’s wages in case of a strike.

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Graffiti in the Gutenberg transit quarters (1983): in Arabic “You live in the shit,” in French “React!”. / Courtesy of Agence IM’média.

Often blamed on the authorities’ hard line position and on the repression, the Sonacotra quarters movement’s decline also has, for the budding movement of migrant youth, unspoken reasons. The fight allowed for a communication between the struggles, a challenge of migrant workers’ closure on themselves. So why not organize an exit from what the residents themselves call “prison quarters”? Individual strategies in that direction multiplied, but without translating themselves into public policy. They remain for a large part, unspoken.

From the Gutenberg Transit Quarters to Redeployment Within the City ///

Rock against Police, an inter-banlieue network initially constituted in the spring of 1980 with the aim of countering racist murders and police violence, the constant policing of the transit quarters and deportations from France, begin to rid the seasoned immigration activists of their “politically correct” inhibitions with the help of youthful impertinence. It castigates the “back home” tropes which lead parents to differ their decisions for a better home, instead saving money in the perspective of a return to the home country and the construction of a house over there. Rock Against Police sets forward its slogan “Circulation and Reterritorialization. Here and Now” and simultaneously involves itself in the struggles for rehousing. They follow a simple idea, a thousand times rehashed by the inhabitants: “Enough with the ghetto!” The principle consists in refusing the imposed forms of specific and segregated housings and, instead, to urge for a redeployment within the city, and even for “classy” housing. In short, to think of space in a different manner, as well as by discussing the emerging institutional operations such as “Habitat and Social Life” (1977-1981) and later, with François Mitterrand’s ascent to the Presidency, the “social development of neighborhoods” plan.

From 1980 to 1982, several concert-demonstrations are organised by Rock Against Police in transit quarters in Nanterre, as well as social housing complexes of Vitry-Sur-Seine and elsewhere. Their proposition consists in setting themselves up in the heart of these neighborhoods, without preliminary authorization, in spaces preferably at the foot of the buildings (in non-developed playgrounds, individual or collective strolling areas, car parks etc.), on a Saturday afternoon in such a way that men, women, adults, adolescents and children can all gather together.

This course of action also has as one of its aims the sidetracking of the policing measures which have been increasingly present in public policies since the end of the 1970s, manifesting itself notably through the shutting off of caves, bicycle storages or any other places where the youth indulge in autonomous and so-called “seditious” activities. A persisting gap thus opposes the Rock Against Police’s protagonists to those who accommodate themselves of the small measures of day-to-day improvement, all the while enclosing themselves within a siege mentality. But on October 23, 1982, in Nanterre’s Gutenberg quarters (also known as “the White City”), a tragedy occurs which will change the game: 19-year-old Abdennbi Guemiah is shot by an inhabitant of a neighboring pavilion. He dies on November 6. This high schooler was the treasurer of the Gutenberg association and had participated in the Rock Against Police concert organized in the quarters six months prior, on May 8, 1982. Emotion is felt by everyone. Divisions begin to fade, the entirety of the Guttenberg quarters is mobilized in order that justice be served, as well as to continue Abdennbi’s fight.

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Les Potagers transit quarters in Spring 1987. The graffiti reads “Strike for All.” / Courtesy of Agence IM’média.

By integrating actors from other neighborhoods, the residents committee which had immediately been set up, grants itself a more global vision which will act as the premisses of a regional, or even national, coordination of transit quarters. A definite and general rent strike is voted, the caretaker is fired and his quarters occupied. The inhabitants themselves begin the redevelopment of the inner space of the quarters: rusty fences which enclosed the neighborhood are removed, informal children’s playpens are made safe, access pathways for cars and pedestrians are mended, the cleaning of common areas as well as the collection of garbage and debris is organized, bicycle and moped reparation workshops emerge, etc. Walls are also torn down in order to make space for rooms allowing for real socio-educative and cultural action; not the kind inscribed in the specifications of the CETRAFA, the managing company whose pretence was to “educate” people in hope of their future adaptation to a modern social life, an action in principle that remained non-existent in the field. On the contrary: socially emancipatory action carried out through collective reappropriation of the cité space in order to answer people’s most immediate needs, fast training in mastering intervention methods in a variety of domains, from the schooling of young children to a fight against drugs and its ravages.

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Gutenberg transit quarters. / Photo extracted from a municipal memorializing plate where the quarters used to be (Archives communales de Nanterre).

Rehousing remains, nonetheless, the main priority. First with the collective enlisting of the transit quarters’ residents on the ill-housed database of the communist municipality, which until then refused to consider them as official inhabitants and sent their demands to the prefecture (the state’s representative) for rehousing, considering that the so-called “tolerance threshold” of 15% had been exceeded in Nanterre. Para-municipal committees, where neighboring inhabitants of the social-housing high rises and of pavilions gather, are occupied. Simultaneously, an investigation carried out among each of the 121 families garners their claims in terms of rehousing (location, size, type of habitat…) while taking into account the diversity of situations. A survey of empty housing allows for a list to be drafted up and placed on the negotiating table. The objective is to force public authorities to seize them, in light of October 11, 1945 ordinance (Article L641-1 of the French Construction and Housing Code), or to use the municipalities’ urban preemption right (DPU), which give them priority access to houses that are put up for sale, so that they can later rent them out, with a proper contract. Navigating between pragmatism and bombastic actions, the state is given no respite and will, so as to avoid deadlock, proceed to the preemption purchases even if it means paying a premium, including pavilions for large families. In exchange, the families will consent to be rehoused in different cities of the Hauts-de-Seine department (local territorial unit), undergoing the break-up of their living communities.

With the aim of better controlling the rehousing process and to rehabilitation available housing, the Gutenberg association signs an agreement protocol with the PACT-Arim network which includes architects, urban planners, building technicians, social workers, housing managers, etc. and launches a cooperative (SCOP) called “Transit-Services.” In spite of the professional middlemen’s disbelief — they thought these young people incapable handling the situation, much less directly negotiating with the public authorities — more than 500 families from different quarters will be rehoused over three years by about a dozen members of Transit-Services.

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Current site where the Gutenberg transit quarters used to be. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

In February 1985, on the eve of Abdennbi’s murderer’s trial (who will be convicted to serve 12 years in prison), the last remaining family leaves the Gutenberg quarters. Considering its mission accomplished, Transit-Services transforms into a versatile activities space, including a unemployed people’s association, training workshops as well as musicians and video artists from the quarters.

Actions concerning housing will persevere until the 1990s, particularly in Les Potagers, one of the rare transit quarters of the Petit Nanterre neighborhood that was built using permanent materials, which are recharacterized as social housing and whose inhabitants are finally granted tenant’s status and all the rights that go with it. In 2018-2019, those who remained have to mobilize again in order to face a demolition-reconstruction project, keeping in their sights the perspective of rehousing locally or “classy” accommodation of their choosing elsewhere. In order to achieve this, they are counting on the support of immigrant’s rights activists who are, for a number of years already, connected with some of the most dynamic tenants defense organisations (whether for French nationals or immigrants), such as the DAL (Right to Housing), in Nanterre and elsewhere.