France: Living with coronavirus

Banlieues fight the stereotype

The World Today Published 1 May 2020 Updated 29 March 2021 2 minute READ

Victor Jack

Politics student and journalist, University of Cambridge

‘People here have worse lives, so they weren’t ready for the virus,’ says Gwenaelle Ferre, a health worker in Saint-Denis, a suburb 10km from the centre of Paris. She argues that COVID-19 has ‘brought a magnifying glass to the inequality, which it both highlights and amplifies’.

Since France imposed tough lockdown measures in mid-March, its capital has been a tale of two worlds. While a quarter of Parisians living in the centre fled to their second homes, those stuck in its surrounding banlieues were left in an increasingly precarious position.

Built to meet post-war housing shortages, these suburbs have witnessed decades of government underfunding, blighted economic opportunities and plummeting quality of life. Today the ethnically diverse areas are often portrayed through the negative stereotype of the ‘delinquent youth’.

Seine-Saint-Denis is mainland France’s poorest département, with only 55 doctors for every 100,000 residents and a third of the hospital beds per capita of inner Paris. It has been hit hard by the pandemic, seeing more than 800 deaths, while its five mayors and General Council president recently warned in Le Monde that ‘inequality kills’.

Hamza Esmili, a sociologist who lives there, says: ‘The disease doesn’t affect people in the same way. It makes the poorest more fragile.’ He argues that structural problems, including large families living in over-crowded housing, and the prevalence of pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes among residents are responsible.

While most are respecting confinement, Esmili stresses that many are essential workers such as cashiers, cleaners and nurses who have to work and leave themselves exposed, since one missed pay-cheque means being they are unable to feed themselves.

Neglect of homeless people and undocumented migrants and ‘increasingly authoritarian’ actions by the police are provoking a rising anger, which recently (last month) culminated in brief clashes between frustrated residents and authorities, Esmili adds.

Last month, Laurent Nuñez, France’s junior Interior Minister, implied residents in the banlieues would ignore confinement, reflecting an image of the residents as undisciplined. In reality, Stéphane Peu, the department’s MP, says the rules have been ‘relatively well-respected’, something President Emmanuel Macron noted when he visited recently.

However, the stereotype was reinforced when pictures of a burning rubbish bin were published round the world.

The story is similar in other deprived areas. In Roubaix in northern France, the city’s chief medical officer Wilfried Verna says solidarity among social groups played a key role in ensuring the ‘very, very quick’ and uniform implementation of the confinement measures.

In the absence of state support, the spirit of togetherness among residents has prompted remarkable feats of initiative. Local associations have organized the handing out of food packages on the streets. At one pop-up outlet, 750 people were seen queuing for a food parcel. Restaurant owners, forced to close under lockdown rules, have taken to cooking for refugees and the homeless.

Young people in the neighbourhood, meanwhile, have set up ad-hoc deliveries to bring essentials for the elderly. But like the systemic issues facing its communities, Esmili emphasizes that this solidarity is a historic constant in the area, as the young are accustomed to bringing necessities to the old, ‘especially if they live on the 15th floor and the lift has been broken for years’.

The coronavirus has brought us to a crossroads, says Esmili. The question now for France’s poorest areas is whether ‘we create more inequality through the pandemic, or whether we try to construct something that is more collective’.