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Project: Banlieues Ablaze

History of the immigrant districts

By John Conrace

You never get more than one first time in Paris. The gilded rooftops are never as bright, the cobblestone roads and open-air cafés are never as charming, and the city is never as perfect. In May 2005, I attended the International Media Seminar in Paris with Missouri Southern on a grant from the Institute of International Studies. In 2006, I again went to Paris, but this time for a different purpose — to study under a McCaleb Peace Initiative Grant.

When I went back I saw all the same things, yet it was so much different. I knew a little more this time; I knew that there were parts of Paris without gilded rooftops or cobblestone streets, where the corners that cafés sat on were cracked and dirty.

Those parts of the city are known for their squalor. They are called the banlieues — the suburbs — and they are populated by millions of French immigrants from Africa and the Maghreb. Many parts of Paris are no longer inhabited by the native French, but a new breed of Frenchman. These Femchmen speak French, call themselves French; but they also call themselves Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian. They are immigrants and their Frenchness is in jeopardy. Since the end of World War II France has played host to a large number of immigrants who now find themselves living in the suburbs.

The French will tell you that the suburbs were built for the immigrants when they were enlisted to re-build France after the war but they were not meant to stay. The French told us many things about why there are so many immigrants and why so many of them live in such squalor. We would learn that the story of French immigration is long and complicated, full of historical footnotes and politically inspired half-truths. Here we will try to explain how the banlieues came to be.

 Mass transit in southern Africa
Gift boxes for sale at the Institute of the
Arab World. The French are very fond of
artifacts from the Arab world.

The fact that an overwhelming number of immigrants living in the banlieues are from the Maghreb and Africa is a testament to the once-glorious French Empire. Europeans had been colonizing the Maghreb since the Ottoman Empire was expelled from Algiers in 1830. Immediately after the French gained control of the country, it was flooded with Europeans. These Europeans who first colonized the Maghreb would become known as Pied-Noir, or Black Foots, probably a reference to their black boots.

The 19th century marked complete French colonization of the Maghreb. In 1848 Algeria was officially annexed into France. Algeria was once as much a part of France as Alaska is a part of the United States. Many Algerians also felt a strong connection to France. During the Franco-Prussian wars and World War I, legions of Algerians served in the French military. After World War I, the Grande Mosquée de Paris was constructed to honor all the Muslim soldiers who died for their great French republic.

Approximately 1.4 million French soldiers were killed in World War I, and after the war France was the only European power to adopt an open immigration policy, to try to recover war losses. By the beginning of World War II, the French had barely recouped their losses through immigration from other European countries; and when the Vichy regime came to power, it began initiatives to raise birth rates by offering incentives to large families.

The Vichy regime also worked readily with the Nazis to kill over half a million Jews. The French were always a very ethnically diverse nation, so when the Vichy implemented racist policies it had a significant effect. After the French republic was reinstated, to stress French brotherhood, laws were written to make it illegal to take statistics referencing anyone’s race or religion. They also stressed brotherhood with their colonies in the Maghreb and imported millions of Algerians and Pied-Noir (many of whom were Jewish) to work in their booming post-war economy.

The 30 years following the war are referred to as the Trente Glorieuses, or the Glorious Thirty. This period was characterized by a rapidly growing economy and expansion of French population and urbanization. The banlieues were built in this period to accommodate the imported labor. Workers’ apartments and tenement buildings were built on the outskirts of major cities, as the cities’ populations grew.

The housing problems would be compounded in 1962 when Algeria gained its independence and nearly a million Pied-Noir and Harkis (indigenous Algerians still loyal to France) fled the country to France. The mass exodus left Algeria desolate and full of ghost towns and France with a major refugee surplus. The exodus and governmental crossover left hundreds of thousands of Pied-Noir unable to prove that they were French citizens and even today they remain unable to prove their identity. The Pied-Noir and the Harkis were hardly welcomed by the French populace. Although nominal migration had been welcomed in previous years, the hatred ignited by the Algerian War of Independence did not favor the Pied-Noir.

The Harkis had it much worse. Thousands of Harkis were never able to re-enter France and were slaughtered in Algeria for being traitors. The Harkis that were able to make it to French shores had often done so illegally, without permission from French authorities.

Since the Harkis were mostly the lower class of Algeria before independence, they were uneducated and unable to find good jobs in France. To compound the issue, the French allowed the wives and children of migrants already in France to migrate from Algeria (most likely to escape reprisals). The lack of housing forced the Refugees to live in the ever-expanding banlieues.

In the mid 1970s, the Trente Glorieuses ended and the world faced economic recession. The banlieues became giant ghettos. As time went on, the poor in the banlieues only became more and more concentrated and further and further from their workplaces. Even with the recession, immigration did not end. Although the French have been trying desperately to curb immigration.

In the present era, France has slowed immigration to a trickle. Yet the legacy of its policies is resounding. Before the World War I, France had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. It now has the second highest, and that is primarily because of immigrants. The French often talk about immigrants with large extended families. When immigrants were allowed to bring their families, they would sometimes bring multiple wives and dozens of children. Those children are now grown and have had their own children.

French Algeria

After the rise of the second republic in 1848, Algeria ceased to be a colony and was divided into 3 different French departments. The region was divided; Oran in the west, Alger in the center, and Constantine in the east. Even if Algeria was an official part of cohesive France, it was treated as a special case to administrators. Algeria would be governed in three different ways. Regions controlled by Europeans would be governed by elections, mixed regions would be governed by appointed officials, and indigenous communities would be governed by “régime du sabre,” or the way of the sabre. By these three types of government the French ensured that Muslims and natives would have as few rights as possible.

The children and grandchildren of the immigrants brought to France during the Trente Glorieuses are now packed like sardines into the low-income apartments originally built for single workers. They have grown up in neighborhoods composed almost completely of immigrants. They have been treated as refugees and migrants for their entire lives, seeing only indigenous French in the wealthy neighborhoods as employers and politicians.

It’s not difficult to see how the banlieues have come to be so violent and squalid. The cities are only a few steps above shantytowns and the inhabitants are seen as refugees and aliens. Even though immigration has slowed, birth rates have soared and many French fear the banlieues. The banlieues are ghettos, unemployment, gangs, and destitute go unchecked beneath the surface of French society.

The banlieues and immigrant districts of France are the legacy of French colonialism and French decisions. Since the riots, many native French have become as anxious about immigrants as the Algerians were about French merchants driving them out of business two hundred years ago. Over the last fifty years the Arab world has changed France as much as French changed the Maghreb. The future of France and it's immigrants is uncertain. But there is one thing we can always be certain of; to understand the future one must understand the past.

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