Are there ghettos in France?


Public debates in France uses the word “ghetto” to define the so-called “banlieue” or “suburb”: French depressed areas, which are commonly associated with overcrowded area, social problems, such as poor population, migrants, underperforming school results, delinquency, violence, ugly concrete tower blocks, etc.
“Ghetto” and “ghettoization” have never been more used by our politicians and media than nowadays. Some mayors of Paris’ suburb (Tremblay-en-France, Sarcelles, Montfermeil, Courneuve, to name but a few) denounce the “ghettoization” of the suburbs because of violence and delinquency. Elected councillors are using the media to attract public attention on imminent dangers in order to get founding from the National Agency for Urban Renewal (ANRU 1). Residents of some very poor suburbs even adopt the word “ghetto” to criticize where they live, for it means all together depressed and disadvantaged area, low school quality, employment discrimination and decrepit tower blocks.
It is however worth asking if “ghetto” is not misused? Why is it used by residents to criticize and by politicians to qualify? As for researchers, some agree to use them to qualify French banlieues and others thinks it is inappropriate according to the word’s definition they give.

Origins of the word “ghetto”

Origins of the word “ghetto” are unclear. It comes probably from the 16th century in the Republic of Venice as Jews were gathered in distinct areas, called “ghetto”. Five criteria define historical ghettos according to the sociologist and geographer Hervé Vieillard-Baron: enclave, constraint, particular religious affiliation, micro-society and stigmatization. Nowadays the word is more related to North American black ghettos and their specific ethnic population, their violence, and their shabby buildings.
French suburbs do not correspond to the former, and then can they be associated with the latter?
There are different points of view on the question. Hervé Vieillard-Baron gives a definition of ghettos based on the five criteria mentioned above and therefore argues that French suburbs cannot be called “ghettos” 2.
The sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie differs on the matter, explaining that while there was not any ghettos in France until the 1980’s because the population was too mixed, the situation has now changed and concentration of specific population, discrimination and relegation transformed suburbs into true ghettos 3. Those new ghettos are both a cage (where people are compelled to live) and a cocoon (where residents feel safe). The author also comments the relation between men and women inside this special world, where men suffer more from racism than women. The former take then a kind of revenge on the latter, whose career and employment successes are greater.
Another author, Eric Maurin, used the word “ghetto” in the French context, and insists on the fact that ghettos are firstly places where wealthy people decide to live together 4.
State institutions, such as the Interdepartmental Commission for migrants’ accommodations (CILPI 5), the Cour des comptes (French audit state body which supervises Financial affairs) and the consultative body which advises the Government on economic and social matters, are cautious about the use of the word “ghettos” in the French context, for ethnic diversity is a fact in French suburbs according to them 6.

From living together to communitarian

Suburbs had not always been inhabited by migrants. The majority of the population in such areas were first workers, which were considered as a force, rather than a burden as it is the case for migrants; at least from left parties. Nowadays suburbs are seen as dreadful issues. And the word “ghetto” is generally used to describe suburbs where certain population, mainly black and Arabs, are living. Such areas may become ghettos as a certain rate of one specific ethnic group is reached 7.

Furthermore, ghettos are often linked with some community issues, but then this link can be seen as artificial, or as a political construction as Malek Boutih argues 8. According to him, ghettos are first an economic and social issue, which may be transformed into a spatial or geographical one, and then only, becomes political 9. Hence in a text published by the French Parti Socialiste (left party), a tendency to communitarianism is criticized (“Pour une nouvelle société urbaine” 10 ) and becoming ghettos are described.

Politic on social diversity and right to housing

Fearing ghettos, some advocate the need of balancing suburbs’ population, the so-called social diversity (mixité sociale in French). In fact, they are calling rather to “ethnic” diversity than social diversity. Some measures have already been taken in this direction. If there is too many social housing in an area, the next housing built in it will be a private one and another area will be chosen to build social housing for instance. This has however some drawbacks on poor families’ housing, as people are consequently asked to move much more and some family are spited.

Government’s promotion of fear

Nonetheless the right to decent housing should prevail and therefore such politics seem clearly to avoid the real problem and even to create new as they do not guarantee to everyone the right to housing. The lack of social housing for example is an issue which has not been addressed efficiently since decades now. Furthermore, unemployment, discrimination, substandard economic performance and poor educational standards are not enough taken into consideration.
It is worth noticing that “ghetto” is usually used to describe area where Arabs and black people are living, never European or “white” people. For them, we will have “neighbourhood” or “area”, but never “ghetto” as it is the case in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
A vicious circle appears as Government uses the word because of particular social issues and cultural/ethnic problems; it is then relayed by local institutions which will in turn automatically consider the population meets those standards and causes these problems; consequently the people are treated differently, the quality is lessen and fear is omnipresent…

Simple words to address serious issues

Lessors are providing always less service to their lessees. There is less and less warden and sometimes one warden has to take care of several buildings. In places where a majority of lessees are Arab or African, entrances and stairs remained by and large unclean and obviously much less service is provided. Parks look like giant bin and roads’ maintenance happens once in a blue moon. Yet, there may be some explanation: risis, profits’ need, etc. None is blind though. And those who are blind should simply have a look on wealthy neighbourhood to see the blatant difference.
Furthermore, in such disadvantaged areas policy makers lower education’s level in schools pretending they adapt schools to children’s need. Hence again a lower quality of education is provided rather than compensatory measures.
Negligence there is maintained and offers a noticeable contrast to maximum requirements fulfilled in other districts.
This negligence is part of the vicious circle which condemns inhabitants of those areas to disadvantaged lives. Not because they are intrinsically disadvantaged, but because they are considered as disadvantaged and their situation is therefore left to fate, instead of being tackled seriously as an issue to address and to solve. As a result and to ward off danger, these people are mostly rejected or left aside rather than being helped or integrated.
Those who manage to fulfil their potentials and be successful in their life usually left the suburb, for it does not suit their fulfilment. The others remain and adopt the behaviour one expects from them, the behaviour of disadvantaged people. They accept norms induced by there condition 11. And this means being socially dead.
It is worth noticing here that the word “ghetto” still does not fit to the French depressed areas. Using this word does only reflect the negligence on these suburbs and eventually polarised, or even mislead the debates.
Little by little we are likely to think that the French Republic has not been thought for those people. They do not have their place their and the Republic’s universalism has failed because cultural and social gaps are too deep to be bridged. Whereas French workers after the Second World War saw the suburbs as a way to access better social statute, the actual ghettos’ inhabitants seem to be stuck there without any way out despite all the Government’s financial aids.
Nonetheless, these inhabitants try to develop their own solution, through associations and local organisations for instance. Keeping the word ghettos in official speeches does not pay any tribute to their efforts; it may be even worse as it means their efforts remain unseen. Changing speeches is probably not enough to change the situation. And yet, everything is worth a try to help tackle the issue which affects more and more French citizens. Besides, it is high time for the Government and politicians to acknowledge the efforts made by these people who have shown courage and determination to deal with their daily problems.

1 The ANRU ( is coordinating nationally projects for urban renewals and ensures implementation and founding of the National Programm for Urban Renewal (PNRU) (,1626.html?var_recherche=pnru).
2 Ghetto, Hervé Vieillard-Baron, Les banlieues françaises ou le ghetto impossible, Hervé Vieillard-Baron, Ed de l’Aube, 1994.
3 Ghetto urbain, ségrégation, violence, pauvreté en France aujourdhui, Didier Lapeyronnie, Ed Robert Laffont, 2008.
4 Le ghetto français, enquête sur le séparatisme social, La République des Idées, Seuil, 2004
5 CILPI : Commission interministérielle pour le logement des populations immigrées.
6 Cour des Comptes, l’accueil des immigrants et l’intégration des populations issues de l’immigration, rapport de novembre 2004 , page 168
7 Sylvie Tissot, L’État et les quartiers. Genèse d’une catégorie de l’action publique. Paris, Seuil, 2007.
8 Membre du Conseil National du Parti Socialiste
9 SOS racisme et les “ghettos des banlieues” : conxstructions et utilisation d’une représentation. Jérémy Robine. Territoires de pouvoirs en France (second trimestre 2004).
10 Rapport au forum des idées. Lille – 6 novembre 2010 – “Pour une nouvelle société urbaine”.
11 Cour des Comptes, l’accueil des immigrants et l’intégration des populations issues de l’immigration, rapport de novembre 2004, page 163.

Download this article