How to Save a City From Itself

Nearly a decade after France's suburbs burned for weeks, Paris has an ambitious plan to reinvent itself to rescue its crumbling outskirts. Color the banlieues skeptical.

Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS — It has a reputation as one of Paris’s most dangerous suburbs, but the first thing that any visitor to Clichy-sous-Bois notices is the odd calm that pervades the city.

In Paris, almost every street corner is home to a bustling café where locals greet each other over an espresso or glass of wine. In Clichy, as locals call the city for short, the streets are empty. No restaurants, no downtown. Most residents leave town to do even their most basic grocery shopping: The city’s only shopping center, in lower Clichy, is run-down, and residents don’t feel safe shopping there. The quiet is only broken around 5 p.m., when the city’s teenagers get out of school and make their way down the streets, lingering on sidewalks and corners, in part because they have nowhere else to go: The only social space where young people can congregate in Clichy is a McDonald’s.

Less than 15 miles northeast of Paris, Clichy-sous-Bois, a city of almost 30,000, is one of the poorest municipalities in the country, and the most prominent symbol of egalitarian France’s glaring and ongoing inequality. The world learned of Clichy in 2005, when it was the epicenter of riots that would eventually sweep through banlieues, or poor suburbs, throughout France, in which alienated suburban youths set fire to cars and public buildings for nearly three weeks. Nothing made investors in Paris more squeamish than seeing those suburbs burning, former Clichy mayor and current Senator Claude Dilain told me in a January interview at his offices in central Paris.

Nearly a decade later, France has embarked on an ambitious plan to remake Paris — and, in the process, solve its suburbs problem. On Jan. 1, 2016, Paris, along with Clichy and more than 120 of its closest suburbs, will be enfolded into the Métropole du Grand Paris, an ambitious but still ill-defined project to create a sort of uber-city — an overarching metropolitan government for the greater Paris area, encompassing around 7 million inhabitants and over 270 square miles. While each of the current cities will continue to exist as a distinct municipality with its own mayor and will likely retain authority over some local services such as primary education and civic duties like performing marriages, they will be regrouped under the Métropole — a concept similar to New York City’s borough system, but on a much grander scale. "It will be a revolution," said Paris City Councilman and Senator Jean-Pierre Caffet. "It will be an absolutely considerable upheaval."

The Métropole is a sweeping attempt to reinvent the government of one of the world’s marquis cities: To govern Paris not as its own town, but as the hub of a coherent region — one that, if it takes shape according to the vision of its founders, will share a tax base, handle urban planning for the region, and write Métropole-wide policies on everything from housing to economic development. The government would also put equality and fighting poverty at the heart of its mission. It’s an idea that some urban planners say could reinvent how the world thinks of its urban centers — except that no one knows quite what it looks like yet.

The Métropole du Grand Paris has been in the works since 2001, years before the banlieue riots rocked France. It’s the culmination of projects begun by then-Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who argued that the lack of cooperation between Paris and its surrounding suburbs — cities that Paris relied on for housing, industry, workers, airports, and more — was both outdated and unsustainable. Delanoë began prompting city leaders to come together to discuss areas in which they could cooperate.

Delanoë’s slow, steady process abruptly switched gears with the 2007 presidential election of Nicolas Sarkozy, who, only weeks after his election, announced his plans to make a Grand Paris a reality — then quickly met with resistance from fellow members of the center-right, many of whom were mayors of wealthy suburbs loathe to share a tax base. Sarkozy’s transportation and economic development plans for wider Paris continued on, but progress toward a Métropole-style government ground to a halt. The project didn’t gain new momentum until 2013, over a year after the election of socialist President François Hollande, when a small group of mainly socialist parliamentarians pushed through a law that made the Métropole a looming reality for 2016. But the law was intentionally vague, in order to build the necessary consensus to get it passed. It didn’t specify most details, including crucial questions of how finances will be shared, and how much autonomy individual cities will keep. And it’s these details that will determine whether a Grand Paris can empower its struggling suburbs.

The story of how Clichy-sous-Bois became one of the worst-off areas in the Paris region helps explain why many here believe the Métropole can help: by ensuring that urban planning takes place with the needs of the whole region in mind. Clichy was originally intended as a middle-class city: In the 1950s and 1960s, developers put up high-rise buildings originally meant for workers in and around the Charles de Gaulle Airport, then under construction. But the promised highway that was intended to link the suburb to the airport, where the jobs were, was never built. Without the promised highway, Clichy was isolated, cut off from the economic motors of the Paris region. Brand-new apartments never sold; they were then rented at low prices, often to immigrants. Better-off apartment owners fled, reselling their units to slumlords, who allowed the apartment buildings to slide into disrepair.

Today, Clichy is a destination for the most vulnerable members of French society, often newly arrived immigrants. Though the French government has since made major investments in the city, including a €580 million urban renovation project that improved living conditions for many residents, serious problems remain. Lack of public transportation is endemic: No trains stop there, and it takes about an hour and a half to reach Paris by a combination of bus, commuter rail, and metro. Residents who manage to get a job soon leave for places with a better commute, and are replaced by poorer ones. Today, 76 percent of residents under 18 have at least one parent who was born in another country — the highest percentage of any city in mainland France. The average income, €15,314, is half that of the region, and the 22.3 percent unemployment rate more than double the rate for the region.

Few Parisian suburbs are as isolated as Clichy. But most still suffer from a lack of adequate public transportation, and across the region, the rapid growth and construction of the suburbs after World War II resulted in hastily built housing projects that have fallen into disrepair, and neighborhoods that lack crucial elements of city life such as easily accessible stores, cafés, and playgrounds.

The goal of the plan isn’t only to help places like Clichy: Its architects hope it will reinvigorate the City of Lights by simplifying Paris’s notoriously byzantine bureaucracy, and make it a more attractive place to do business. But the plan is also the first of its kind designed explicitly to combat concentrations of poverty within, and inequality between, neighborhoods. "The reinvention of Paris is also the renegotiation of a model of society," one where the traditionally marginalized banlieues have a voice in the future of the region, said Frédéric Gilli, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and the author of a recent book about the Métropole. At stake, he says, is whether a world-class city can become egalitarian by design.

When Clichy and other banlieues become part of the Métropole du Grand Paris, they’ll become eligible for funding financed by the tax dollars of wealthy municipalities such as Paris or Neuilly-sur-Seine — though what they will be able to spend it on is not yet clear. A central housing authority will require even the wealthiest cities within the Métropole to provide public housing, which could help redistribute poverty — currently concentrated in the northeast — throughout greater Paris. The Métropole will also be in charge of urban planning, hopefully avoiding infrastructure bungles of the sort that isolated Clichy in the 1960s. And beginning in 2023, Clichy should also have a new train station as part of the Grand Paris Express metro system, planning for which began under Sarkozy, which will improve access to jobs.

Beyond the tangible benefits of a train station and tax dollars, urban planners are hoping a government for Grand Paris will foster a common identity — one that creates a sense of belonging. "Residents of Clichy-sous-Bois don’t feel like they belong if they go to Paris," Mehdi Bigaderne, a member of ACELEFEU (a play on the words assez le feu, or "enough fire"), a community group founded in Clichy during the 2005 riots that advocates on behalf of underserved neighborhoods, told me recently. For future generations, he said, he hoped "there will just be one big Paris."

But back in Clichy, for most residents the Métropole project remains a "total abstraction," as one resident told me. Most don’t understand what it is, or how it will affect their lives; for those with everyday struggles, a train station in 2023 and a new financial redistribution system in 2016 are not solutions. Most don’t trust the French government. "There have been so many promises here that residents are starting to distrust," said Bigaderne of ACELEFEU.

And even as the details are still being hammered out, the Métropole project is facing larger political hurdles that threaten to scale back its ambitions. In March, municipal elections in the cities around Paris that would make up the Métropole swept in a wave of new conservative mayors, of the sort who once blocked the project when it was being pursued by Sarkozy. Officials from wealthy areas of greater Paris are pushing hard for the government to revise the law to allow cities to retain their fiscal autonomy; meanwhile, even those on the left who championed the idea have begun to consider scaling it back, unwilling to see a powerful institution fall into the right’s hands.

Still, at a time when cities are becoming increasingly important arenas for the fight against rising inequality — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, ran on an inequality-focused platform, while Seattle recently raised its minimum wage — some have begun holding up the Métropole as a potential model for how other cities can address inequality. Representatives from Bogotá, Milan, and Moscow came to observe an early consultation session for the project, said Pierre Mansat, the Paris mayor’s deputy in charge of the Métropole du Grand Paris, and while the model might not be directly transferable, the ideals are universal, he said.

But for those in Clichy, that their future city may one day be a model for others remains small consolation while the city lacks a train and a downtown. And 2016 feels — in many ways — still very far away.

"We’ve gotten so used to waiting, to being patient," said Bigaderne. "There you go; we’re going to wait."

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