The Territorial Stigma in Political Discourse

In his 1963 work “Stigma”, Erving Goffmann defined stigma as the “situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance.” The situation in French residential areas, described by the responsible politicians with a range of terms that serve at least as much to discredit as to characterise these suburbs (delicate, problematic, ghettoised, legal vacuum), suggests itself as an example.

Rather than being a characteristic in itself, the stigma forms in the perception of others before being internalised by the stigmatised person, as Goffmann explains. It is understood as a relationship between those who adopt the position of “normality” and those who deviate from it. But what exactly is the stigma that is attached to French social housing districts, some municipalities or even entire departements like Seine-Saint-Denis? What exactly is it that disqualifies them from full social acceptance?

The marginalisation of non-white suburbs

In the early 1970s, the French leadership began to question the urban structure of major housing estates whose construction the state itself had previously planned on a large scale. This form of housing was considered badly executed, too massive and compact, even conducive to crime and had allegedly led to nuisance behaviour in young people and damaged social relations. It should be noted that despite an external transformation of hundreds of suburbs, carried out as part of an urban renovation programme all across France, this stigma still hasn’t disappeared several decades later. The urban normalisation of these areas was set in motion, yet their stigmatisation remains. Consequently, it is not their external shape or their urban form that determine the negative perception of these suburbs – it’s the people who live there.

The political discourse bears a special responsibility for shaping the opinion of the French majority, which refuses to accept the existence of places where minorities are in the majority. The latest example of this discourse is a statement by Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a respected figure of the “republican” Left the government recently appointed as chairman of the Fondation pour l’Islam de France, the French Islam Foundation. In August 2016, he stated: “There are 135 nationalities in Saint-Denis, for example, but there is one that has almost disappeared.” It is immaterial that in saying this, the former Interior Minister blatantly distorted the district’s statistical reality (according to INSEE, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, there were 29.8% foreigners in Saint-Denis in 2011, and 21.4% in the Seine-Saint-Denis departement). His message aimed at alarming the public with a statistically unverifiable fact: Only non-whites live in Saint-Denis these days, even if they are French.

The root cause of the discreditation of suburban districts lies right here, in their deviation from the social norm that says white people must be in the majority in France at all levels. Anything else is considered an unacceptable anomaly. As a result, some neighbourhoods have been stigmatised as “ghettos” since the late 1960s, right at the time when many immigrants from North Africa and their families left slum areas, shelters and other temporary settlements and moved into social housing facilities. Since then, the common denominator of the “anti ghetto” speeches has been the return of these residential areas “to normality”– a term that seems to be as fashionable as the political motto “Creating a suburb like any other”. You’d be inclined to say: a suburb like “in the old days”, alluding to the mythical times of the first social housing estates that were characterised by an overwhelming majority of white people.

A centuries-old stigmatisation, rekindled by the attacks

The work of historians is proving valuable in reminding us of the long-standing stigmatisation of working-class districts as a fixed point for social fears. The working-class strongholds of the 19th century were described as a separate, dangerous world by their upper-class contemporaries, inhabited by individuals whose morals they disapproved of.

Although the early days of large social housing estates in the history of housing construction for the lower social classes are regarded as a happy era – albeit idealised in retrospect –, it was these very same estates that eventually evoked new social fears. In the late 1980s, against the background of the headscarf affair and the Front National beginning to establish itself, a political discourse emerged (and was mediatised) that plausibly painted these neighbourhoods as a deadly danger to the “French” or “republican” integration model. One word has since prevailed in the public debate: “Communitarianism.” This term, suggestive of parallel societies, implies that in their neighbourhoods, ethno-religious groups are gradually replacing the law of the republic with their own; a law supposedly characterised by religious fundamentalism, the subjugation of women, polygamy, mafia-like structures and antisocial behaviour that challenges the public institutions.

Since January 2015, the political and social image of suburban districts has been enriched by a new character: the jihadist not just striking at France but at its “civilisation”. “Hundreds of suburbs in France”, to quote a statement Minister of Urbanity Patrick Kanner made in March 2016, “are fertile ground for jihadists where the same thing as in Molenbeek could potentially happen.” At the same time, the prevailing discourse now puts the residents of social housing districts under blanket suspicion of being resistant to the “values of the republic”.

Thus a few dozen or hundreds of school students (estimates vary) disturbing or refusing to hold a minute of silence and the residents of social housing estates not participating in the mass demonstrations of 11 January 2015 (which can’t be verified) after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo supposedly demonstrate their weak attachment to those values and, consequently, a lack of identification with the French nation. In a speech delivered ten days later, Prime Minister Manuel Valls affirmed that the cracks in national unity involved “all parts of the country” and that problems weren’t restricted to specific suburbs. This cautious choice of words certainly aimed at preventing stigmatisation and a generalised apportioning of blame. However, in his very next sentence, the prime minister compiled a list of problems rehashing the most common stereotypes usually ascribed to these neighbourhoods: “A rigid sense of identity, racism, antisemitism, discrimination, sexism, withdrawal into their own communities, black-market laws, unemployment, unequal access to culture and education, despair amongst parts of the youth population.”

We shall refrain from countering with a comforting portrayal of the “richness” and “creativity” of the suburbs – images that, not without contradiction, also feed into the repertoire of political and medial presentation. However, you can’t but highlight the following paradox: The responsible French politicians declare that they strive for the inclusion of population groups outside the city centres in the name of “republican equality”, yet they never cease to remind those very same population groups that they aren’t quite like the others, that they lack the certain characteristic Goffmann was talking about that would satisfy the requirements of the republic.