There are two ways in French to talk about suburbs: “la banlieue” and “en banlieue.” Say you live in “la banlieue,” and everybody knows it is in a public housing project. Say you live “en banlieue,” and it is likely to be outside Paris, for instance Neuilly, like the Minister of Interior Nicolas Sarkozy. In both locations, there is a suburban effect: negative in the first case and positive in the second one.
In a democratic country, many ways exist to express one’s discontent with the government. By definition, none of them involve violence. So why do some people use violence as a means of protest? Much speculation has taken place in the international press as to the root of the problem. Some believe it is a clash of civilizations, others see it as a religiously rooted problem, still others believe it is a manifestation of a lack of effective integration policies that do not recognize minorities, and some alarmists in Russia even fear that the riots were driven by the CIA. In French national newspapers, the discussion seems to focus on the more pragmatic issue of restoring law and order. When politicians talk about the suburbs, one may infer that they believe it is an immigration issue.
The truth is that immigration is one part of the answer: being an immigrant does not help getting a job. But the divide is first between the public housing projects (“suburbs”) and the rest of France. Why is this so? It is because of a technicality.
Public housing projects were expanded after the cold winter in 1954 in the aftermath of World War II. They were dramatically increased at the end of the decolonization period, when lots of French living abroad returned, as well as other French natives from former colonies. The French state decided to complement the supply of low rent apartments by a lodging benefit created in 1977 for low-income households. In order to be eligible to live in one of these housing projects, one has to apply. People apply because the lodging benefit is, most of the time, identical to the rent paid in these public projects. Since by law French institutions cannot discriminate on the basis of citizenship, minority status, or religious affiliation, the only way to choose qualified residents is by looking at income levels. Consequently, everybody living in the public projects has a very low income. For example, the yearly household average taxable income in 2001 was 28,433 euros for the whole of France while it was around 19,000 euros in the housing projects. Aside from being a consequence of the selection requirement, this income disparity also creates an over-additive effect which I call the “suburban effect”. Indeed, living in a suburb and being surrounded by people who are all in social transition does not foster an incentive to work more at school (41% of boys and 32% of girls in Middle-Schools are one year late or more against around 25% for the French average including the suburbs numbers), or even to have a positive outlook on one’s prospects for success in society at large. Although the overall population living in the public projects declined from 4.7 million to 4.5 million inhabitants from 1990 to 1999, the profile of the newcomers is sociologically identical as a result of the eligibility criteria. Between 1990 and 1999, 1 million people left an apartment not in a housing project to live in one (see the 2005 report of the Observatoire National des zones Urbaines Sensibles). There are other startling statistics. People between 20 and 35 years old constitute 42% of the newcomers. Young people between 7 and 30 years old leave their parents later than the people not living in projects. Both the lower level in terms of education, and less job offers explain this delay in residential autonomy. For men, the unemployment rate varies dramatically depending on your education: a man with more than 2 years at the university will face an unemployment rate of 15.3% when living in a project, and 5.7% otherwise. A man with 2 years at the university will face an unemployment rate of 8.9% when living in a project, and 4.8% otherwise. A man without any diploma will face a rate of 26.6% when living in a housing project, and 10.2% otherwise. The overall unemployment rate for men living in a suburb is 19.3%, and 6.9% elsewhere. The overall unemployment rate is 9.8% in France, but this number is meaningless since there is such a high discrepancy between the people living in public housing and those who are not. The causality is tough to read, and this aspect is first explained by the eligibility criteria: you need to have a low income to live in a public project. But the reason why young people would go to school for less time than their counterparts living outside the suburbs is related to the social environment. Only unsuccessful paths lead individuals into housing project and this path becomes cyclical.
How does immigration fit in this picture? A male immigrant from outside the European Union faces an unemployment rate of 26.4% when living in a project. Why is that so? According to economists, an immigrant has more chances to be unemployed than anybody else since he or she does not have the necessary human capital to integrate the workforce. You can also add hypothetical (since obviously this practice is illegal and punished by law) factors like discrimination by some employers. But this does not explain why the same immigrant would face an unemployment rate of 15.1% when living elsewhere. As a matter of fact, if it is not a surprise to have only low-income people in the projects since it is the outcome of the selection process, it is not a surprise to see that many immigrants live in the projects. Now this does not mean that integration does not work. Indeed it is not because one sees an overrepresentation of immigrants in housing projects that one can conclude that no immigrants succeed. Success in fact implies leaving the projects. Here are a few more statistics. Foreigners account for 6.2% of the French population, second generation foreigners represent 10% of the French population, and 20% of the French are of foreign descent. In other words, focusing only on the immigrants in the suburbs and concluding that the failure of integration leads society to ignore the immigrants is the housing projects is a flawed approach producing a flawed conclusion (see Franck Biancheri’s edito on Monday November 14, 2005). Misreading the statistical causality is to give ground to the radicalization of the French society over immigration: French citizens as well as immigrants believing that the divide is between immigrants and non-immigrants. The danger is that if the citizens believe in this divide, the left-wing parties will call for more integration policies, and the right-wing parties will call for more immigration policies. In either case, the presidential debate will polarize over immigration, being associated with either integration policies or migration flow restrictions. But after 2002 and the rejection of the European constitution, the French do not seem to lean towards more integration policies but rather towards more law and order policies.
French society, as in any large society, is full of different divides: different ethnic minorities, different religious groups, etc. Because they are based solely on income criteria, suburbs necessarily concentrate in one very visible location all of the “malfunctioning” aspects of the French society. But the danger of not understanding that the main divide is suburbs versus non-suburbs is policy paralysis. It is the danger of not being able to tackle the issue at the root of the French suburb riots: the impossibility of creating social diversity in the public projects. If any other divide is put forward for political reasons, the next decade will bear witness not only to the issue remaining unresolved, but a reinforcement of the vote of the extreme parties.