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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les cités ont droit de cité à Gentilly

by Mina Kaci

Pioneers of Democracy in a Paris Suburb: from the Council Estates to the City Council

A Council in the Image of the Population

Translated Sunday 5 October 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Diversity – Communist Patricia Tordjman’s list [1] was elected by a clear majority of the votes in the first round of the March local election in Gentilly, a suburb just south of Paris – 68% of the candidates were from the local public housing estates [2]. A Council in the Image of the Population.

Gentilly’s town council looks younger and more colourful; it has changed dramatically. The metamorphosis was desired and sanctioned by 58% of the electorate in the first round of the last election (on March 9, 2008) for the candidates on the list offered a true picture of the small town’s 17,000 inhabitants. Proof enough that Patricia Tordjman and her fellow-candidates adhered to the population’s aspiration to take an active part in policy-making by electing left-wing representatives that were in their own image.

Commitment to that line entailed far more than the objective of giving seats to the “invisible minorities” as the phrase goes in some circles. None of the candidates on the list expected such a clear majority. They did expect to come first in the election, the town having elected communist mayors for decades on end, but the result this time was all the more surprising as the Socialist Party had decided to put up a separate list on the evidence of its results in the 2007 presidential and general elections.

Looking back on the election, Fatah Aggoune, a new independent councillor, finds it “not so very surprising. There was such a massive mobilization,” he explains, “with ordinary people becoming actively involved in the campaign, and in osmosis with candidates they were acquainted with and who lived in the same social environment. We all drew up the platform together.”

And although communists had long been familiar with the practice, the Socialists’ secession no doubt obliged them to go further, to pass on to a higher “level of accomplishment”, as Patricia Tordjamn calls it. In her mayor’s office (there are only four women out of a total of 46 mayors in the Val de Marne départment) she relates how “the setting up of a list used to be done exclusively by the parties, notably between the two historical leftist parties that made up the “united left”. But other political forces have now emerged among us, notably the Trotskyite LCR (Revolutionary Communist League), or the anti-globalization citizens’ committees, and other citizens variously involved in social movements without being members of any political party. We wanted absolutely all of these people to be represented on the same list, and we wanted that list to be drawn up by the inhabitants of this town.”

Negotiations at the top were consequently ruled out; and there was no question either of discussions over the names to be put on the candidates’ list without having first “defined the core of a non-negotiable common leftist project”. Among the non-negotiable missions were protecting the town against real estate speculation, keeping up its genuinely popular tradition against the tentacles of speculation that have seized most of the capital’s other neighbouring suburban cities.

Gentilly is proud of the 60% share of social housing on its territory. “If finding a flat near Paris increasingly becomes a luxury, we believe that here, in this city, it must remain a right,” Fatah Aggoune explains (he is in charge of town-planning). “We must make sure that rents remain within our children’s and grand-children’s reach, that the younger generations remain entitled to social, communal property.”

To protect the city’s social housing, Patricia Tordjman considers it indispensable that “the town should be managed by at least 60% of the population that live in public housing projects and in the lower-income neighbourhoods. Those that have the biggest stake in deep social change are those who suffer most from the living conditions capitalism imposes upon them.” Such was the objective announced, and the promise was kept: out of the 26 councillors elected, 19 live in public housing complexes whether they be French by their origins or French by adoption issued from families having immigrated here. The notion of “ethnic diversity” is banned here; “it’s not just a question of semantics: if you hold that the class of politicians must come from among the common people, then you have no need to wonder if a Black or an Arab should be added to the list,” Patricia Tordjman insists.

Indeed, statistics show that the new lower-classes increasingly come from Northern African or Sub-Saharan immigrants. “The PCF (French Communist Party) has lost contact with its social base, with the people to whom it owes its existence and credibility, for over the years it has lost sight of the changes in this base,” the communist mayor laments.

This line was adopted by the other progessive forces that make up the leftist majority, and with the people from those same housing projects who attended the meetings and actively contributed to the definition of the platform and to the dynamics of the campaign. Mobilization was largely the result of the ad-hoc collective set up for the campaign, which alone could muster all the town’s energies. “The Socialist Party did not understand what was going on. They thought that the collective was merely a cover for the PCF, when in fact the different currents and personalities met on an equal footing: there was a real debate going on,” Gilles Allais testifies. A senior councillor himself, he left the Socialist Party in 2004 and took on the label “Gentilly for a Different Left”, meaning to set up his own list until he realized that the electoral committee was open to new trends: seeing how it included young people, women, political or social activists, either from the PCF, the LCR, or former socialists, Gilles Allais and his friends jumped into the militant melting pot.

As did Ahmed Badri, the newly elected thirty-two-year-old town councillor: “I went to public meetings and volunteered to work on economic-development issues. I liked our being expected to build something together, to give our opinion. Patricia Tordjman really proposed this collaboration to a wide variety of people: people of different generations, from different sectors and lines, from different geographical areas. People came on a voluntary basis, there was no prior selection,” the young councillor points out, praising the mayor’s “nerve” and “daring”: “She could easily have drafted a platform with her team and the party she stands for, as had been the practice so far.”

This stance led the PCF to withdraw some of its candidates and to share the local government with others. And yet, in the mayor’s view, “the party is not losing ground, it is actually reinforcing the revolutionary movement in the city, which is its essential vocation.” That the town’s population, beyond the militant ranks, should rise in the middle of the electoral campaign and vindicate this list as their own, and fight to get it elected, that they should clap their hands and ululate on the night when the results were announced - that was truly the effective launching of the slogan: “an alternative approach to politics”. Limited to Gentilly, of course. “Reading the list, everyone wanted to be on it,” Nama Camara remembers with a smile. “There were people of all origins, with whom I’d grown up or who’d seen me grow up. I knew 26 out of the 33 candidates,” he says with a laugh.

The list was indeed in the image of the town; where the population residing in tenement buildings and in the poorer quarters actively supported it. It got 74.26% of the votes in the Chaperon Vert building complex, 68.60% and 63.90% in other neighbourhoods. “I’d never have thought I and my childhood friend Ahmed Badrid would find ourselves involved in politics one day,” he exclaims astonishedly.

Editor’s notes:

[1The list A gauche, ensemble pour Gentilly (A United Left for Gentilly) is composed of 26 elected officials, including 8 members of the French Communist Party, 3 representatives of the group Gentilly à Gauche Autrement (Gentilly for a Different Left), 2 members of the former The Revolutionary Communist League (Ligue communiste révolutionnaire), 1 member of the Left Radical Party (Parti Radical de Gauche), 1 member of The Red and Green Alternative group (Alternatifs Rouges et Verts) and 10 others who are either communist sympathizers or non-politically affiliated.

[2public housing projects (known to the British public as "council estates").

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