The French suburbs – abandoned? – Part 1

Think we’re living in confusing times today? You need to read and digest this 400-page tale of the French suburbs.

Plus ça change

Author Xavier de Jarcy, also a journalist with the French culture and TV magazine Télérama, spent three years writing and researching Les Abandonnés. His painstaking attention to detail shows.

Driving forces, decisions taken, dissent, favouritism, consequences… no stone is left unturned. De Jarcy analyses every nook and cranny, quite literally, as well as dropping strong hints as why this kind of housing has generally failed to meet expectations – be they social, economic, architectural, or psychological.

The book explores the suburbs from their origins before World War II up to the present day – from the aspirational garden city of Suresnes, built between 1921-1939, to the ubuesque model of the housing estate in Grigny (suburb south of Paris), introduced in the late 1960s, to the ‘yellow vest’ (gilet jaune) movement in 2019.

Véritable_portrait_de_Monsieur_Ubu
Portrait of Monsieur Ubu by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Why the fail? In part due to incoherent thinking by successive governments, politicians, ministers, heads of departments, directors, and of course architects, reckons de Jarcy. All men, by the by, at least until halfway through the book. The psycho-sociologists Ruth Bercoff and Agnès Pitrou appear on page 298. Jacqueline Thome-Patenôtre, a socialist member of the French Parliament on page 360. Yet these ladies, and those who follow, only play minor roles in the tragicomedy being played out.

The French suburbs grew out of the urgent need to build, build, build. To provide bricks and mortar for people in the aftermath of World War II, to clear away the slums and attempt to stay one step ahead of the looming housing crisis.

Telling the story, de Jarcy evokes what feels like a tsunami of tension, building up over the decades as the population soars. The urban planners can’t keep pace. In the post-World War II decades, the birth rate shoots up, accentuated by the arrival of thousands of repatriates from Algeria post War of Independence, which ended in 1961.

This mounting pressure is part of the reason, suggests de Jarcy, why the suburbs have, on the whole, failed to deliver. There (now) appears to have been a blatant lack of long-term planning or vision, flaunting of planning regulations (when they existed), and disregard for the long-term needs and well-being of the suburbanites to be.

Les Abandonnés_book reading 1
Xavier de Jarcy at a book reading for Les Abandonnés – 3 April 2019, Le Genre Urbain

Funding cracks & cutting costs

Les Abandonnés points one finger at the largely insufficient and certainly irrational approach to funding social housing in France. Colossal sums of money were spent on military activities – namely the wars in Indochina (1946-1954) and Algeria (1954-1962) –compared to investing in roofs over the heads of people in need. De Jarcy’s observations highlight how, with every new president and government, time and again the military was prioritised over sectors like education, healthcare… and housing.

Les Abandonnes_book reading 2

More soon…

 

Note from P4T: yes, I’m reviewing in English a book currently only available in French. Why not?

 

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