Residents of the city’s poorer, immigrant-heavy suburbs have for years asked the government to take their challenges seriously. They’ve had little success.
—In 2005, the Paris banlieues, the suburbs that are to France what the inner cities are to the United States, erupted in three weeks of riots. Triggered by the deaths of two teenagers who were reportedly evading police, demonstrators burned thousands of cars and trashed businesses—an uprising of rage by a population that’s largely poor and composed of immigrants, one that had long felt ignored by the state. To quell the riots, then-President Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency.
Fast-forward to the present day. For three months now, protesters in yellow vests have held weekly Saturday demonstrations across France. Many have erupted in violence—shop-window smashing, car burning, damage to the Arc de Triomphe, even anti-Semitic outbursts. A movement that began with protests against a fuel-tax hike has now become a simmering crisis of representative democracy, one that’s prompted President Emmanuel Macron to offer a host of concessions and start a national debate about economic inequality.
Farid Bouchelouche, who’s active in a renters’ association in Savigny-sur-Orge, a suburb south of Paris, pointed to that double standard (even though he said he didn’t want to see it as a racial one). When the yellow vests take to the streets, “the demonstration is seen as a democratic right,” he told me. But if young people from the banlieues protest, “it’s seen as vandalism; it’s civil disobedience.”
The yellow-vest movement started out protesting a hike in diesel-fuel taxes. It developed at traffic roundabouts—and online—among people in rural and semirural areas of France, towns that feel abandoned by the state as schools, hospitals, post offices, and other social services have been scaled back. Surveys have found that supporters of the yellow-vest movement have a greater affinity with the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen than with any other party (the next most popular is a far-left group).
Some elected officials in the banlieues worry, too, that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears, and think: So why should we get involved now? Catherine Arenou, the mayor of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, told me that she found it puzzling when Macron jump-started a national conversation about income inequality because of the yellow-vest protests, after his government had rejected a series of detailed proposals about how to fix the French banlieuesthat a government-appointed committee submitted last summer. Known as the Borloo Plan, it recommended a 2-billion-euro ($2.25-billion) investment in education, public transportation, computer literacy, and initiatives to help women become more economically independent. “We spent six months making recommendations,” Arenou said of the report, “and he threw them into the trash can.”
That’s why her town did not host one of Macron’s debate evenings, in which he shows up and talks to citizens—sometimes boring them to tears, if the comments on online forums are anything to go by. Arenou said it would make things far worse if Macron were to come and once again not listen to concrete proposals. Macron visited other suburbs, but not Chanteloup-les-Vignes.
Above all, Arenou told me that she’s worried about a face-off between rural and urban issues, when in fact they are largely similar. “We’re heading somewhere troubling,” she said. “We’re trying to contrast different poverties, as if the poverty of cities and that of the countryside were at odds with each other.”