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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La politique de la ville a-t-elle oublié les habitants ?

by Marie-Hélène Bacqué

Have Urban Policies Left the Inhabitants Out?

From working-class neighborhoods to “problem areas”.

Translated Friday 18 October 2013, by Isabelle Métral

How much have urban policies achieved in thirty years? Have local populations benefited most from the institutional armory as they were supposed to?

Marie-Hélène Bacqué, a sociologist, town-planner, and professor at the Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre, and Mohamed Mechmache are the authors of a report on citizenship and citizen empowerment in working class districts, which they delivered to Junior Minister for Urban Policies François Lamy on the 8th of July, 2013.

Seen retrospectively, urban policies can be said to have gradually abandoned local populations. They were meant for them, but were made without them, and sometimes even against them, especially during the last ten years when they were refocused on urban renovation and security.

It was in the 1980s, when the Left came into office, that “the social development of neighborhoods” (as it was called) came to be formalized. The ambition was part of a project of social transformation in favor of the lower classes geared toward experiment. But urban policies soon became an institutional instrument to defuse social unrest. As early as the 1990s, the drive towards the modernization of the State became paramount and the theme of social exclusion drove out any other perspective: and then the talk was all about “disadvantaged districts”, no longer about popular or working class neighborhoods.

For all this, urban policies cannot be summarily dismissed as having flopped. For one thing, the money that has been poured into them has not been wasted, for it has contributed, if only marginally, to alleviating the consequences of the social and economic crisis. And above all, it would be totally unrealistic to believe that social inequalities could ever be remedied through urban policies alone. Urban policies are no doubt important, but as gaps between social classes widen and social insecurity spreads, inequalities will not be curbed without much more potent levers being used. What more could be expected of policies that have been confined to territories that lie more often than not outside the rule of the law? Not all inhabitants are treated equally: less public money is spent on a young student in the département of Seine-Saint-Denis (to the north of Paris) than on one in Paris. So much so that when we met Mohamed Mechmache during our mission, a lot of people rejected urban policies and demanded laws to re-establish equality between the territories.

It is now thirty years since young people from popular districts marched for equality [1] and raised the issue of equality before French society, and the astonishing fact is that in all that time the issue has never been truly addressed by those in office. The inequalities for which they called us to account were social as well as ethnic or racial: thirty years later the issue of the colonial legacy is still a major issue.

What is now needed is that the Left promote an ambitious platform in favor of lower class neighborhoods and this cannot be considered outside a new deal that re-distributes resources in all fields, nor considered without a clamp down on discriminatory practices with the support of the State administration. For the co-elaboration, co-definition, and success of which citizen participation and empowerment are essential. This, then, cannot be achieved without a drastic transformation of our practices. But are our political representatives and political forces ready to take that big step? Nothing is absolutely certain in that respect.

Indeed, instead of addressing those issues head-on, it seems that part of the Left is leading us along byways where intolerance and sometimes Islamophobia are ripe, while others (or sometimes the same) are content with dangling the promise of an “all-out security policy”, which only aggravates the tensions – not to forget those that decreed before the last presidential election [2] that for political purposes, the lower classes have simply dropped out of the scene – which the electoral results have since given the lie to.

Our report has given rise to a lot of questions as to its future effects. We hope our proposals will be implemented. The drastic reform we recommend will depend as much on the impulse effectively given from the highest State level as on the mobilization and the constitution of local and national opposition forces. We mean to continue our collaboration with the many citizens and associations that have contributed to our investigation.

[1And against racism. Following an episode of anti-immigrant police violence near Lyon and in a political context where the government publicly denounced the activism of immigrant workers in a strike, while the national Front won the local election in Dreux, 32 marchers set off from Marseille on the fifteenth of October, 1983, inspired by the examples of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. By the time they reached Lyon, they were over a thousand. Leftist parties and associations mobilized their members: 60,000 marchers reached Paris on December 3rd.

[2In a study published by Terra Nova, a think-tank that has the ear of the French Socialist party.

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