Quartiers Populaires and Banlieues: The Spatial Lexicon of French Structural Racism




In the context of this issue, it was important for us to bring up two terms central to the struggle against (spatialized) structural racism in France: “banlieues” and “quartiers populaires.”Both would lose significant parts of their meaning if they were translated or thought with anglophone equivalents, which is why it was important for us and for our translator, Chanelle Adams to actively refuse their translation in this text we commissioned to Mathieu Rigouste whose work on the matter has had a strong influence on us for the past decade.

Leopold Lambert Funambulist 4
Annual march for 24 year old Adama Traoré, who died during his arrest by the military police (gendarmerie) on July 19, 2016. Every year, the Comité Adama organizes a march in Beaumont-sur-Oise (distant northwestern banlieue of Paris). / Photo by Léopold Lambert (July 21, 2018).

An obsessive gaze looms over quartiers populaires. Governments, mainstream media, and social scientists all observe and scrutinize these neighborhoods and their inhabitants. This targeted way of looking serves to legitimize dominion over those on the peripheries of imperial centers of power, aiming to silence them and impede their right to lead dignified lives. What are the conditions under which we can think about quartiers populaires in a rigorous and critical way? And could the exercise of questioning this terminology offer tools in service of our struggles for liberation?

Quartiers populaires and banlieues: What, who, and where? ///

Like all social practices, the meanings and connotations of these words differ according to the history, politics, and societal position of those who use them. In this text, I attempt to define them on the basis of my own experience, including my use of them in critical research, to explore the ways they are recruited in neighborhood and immigration struggles.

I grew up in a banlieue of Paris called Gennevilliers. In the 1980s, it was ravaged by dope, destitution, and many forms of institutional violence. Families of all backgrounds gathered in the center of Le Luth neighborhood to combine their know-how and to share what little they had, often in the form of self-organized barbecues for all. Later, this common ground was destroyed as part of the city’s urban renewal plan which favored securitarian infrastructure over communal life at the turn of the century. Les Izards is a banlieue of Toulouse where I currently live and from where I am writing now. It has some of the highest rates of inequality and precariousness in the country. It is also where several thousand residents of multiple nationalities live together and survive side by side. Young people face violence daily whether at the hands of the police, gun violence in drug deals, or alleged “suicides” in the solitary confinement at Seysses prison outside Toulouse. Even in the midst of all this violence intertwined with the many social forms of domination which structure society, I have seen more mutual aid and solidarity here than I’ve seen in the most privileged neighborhoods of the military-security technopolis.