Christopher Caldwell on Christophe Guilluy on French Elites

If you want to understand what's wrong with European immigration policy, Christopher Caldwell's 2009 book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is the best start:

In his provocative and unflinching book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, he reveals the anger of natives and newcomers alike. He describes asylum policies that have served illegal immigrants better than refugees. He exposes the strange interaction of welfare states and Third World traditions, the anti-Americanism that brings natives and newcomers together, and the arguments over women and sex that drive them apart. And he examines the dangerous tendency of politicians to defuse tensions surrounding Islam by curtailing the rights of all.

He has a long new piece on the French real estate consultant Christophe Guilluy, who was become an improbable analyst of French society. Actually, not so improbable: Choosing where to live strips away the bullshit and lays peoples' actual preferences (as opposed to their public pieties) about multiculturalism, diversity, etc. bare. Guilluy uses urban geography to create an analysis of the divisions plaguing French society:

In our day, the urban real-estate market is a pitiless sorting machine. Rich people and up-and-comers buy the private housing stock in desirable cities and thereby bid up its cost. Guilluy notes that one real-estate agent on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris now sells “lofts” of three square meters, or about 30 square feet, for €50,000. The situation resembles that in London, where, according to Le Monde, the average monthly rent (£2,580) now exceeds the average monthly salary (£2,300).

The laid-off, the less educated, the mistrained—all must rebuild their lives in what Guilluy calls (in the title of his second book) La France périphérique. This is the key term in Guilluy’s sociological vocabulary, and much misunderstood in France, so it is worth clarifying: it is neither a synonym for the boondocks nor a measure of distance from the city center. (Most of France’s small cities, in fact, are in la France périphérique.) Rather, the term measures distance from the functioning parts of the global economy. France’s best-performing urban nodes have arguably never been richer or better-stocked with cultural and retail amenities. But too few such places exist to carry a national economy. When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age, and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants.

After the mid-twentieth century, the French state built a vast stock—about 5 million units—of public housing, which now accounts for a sixth of the country’s households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it’s all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today. In the rough northern suburb of Aubervilliers, for instance, three-quarters of the young people are of immigrant background. Again, Paris’s future seems visible in contemporary London. Between 2001 and 2011, the population of white Londoners fell by 600,000, even as the city grew by 1 million people: from 58 percent white British at the turn of the century, London is currently 45 percent white.

While rich Parisians may not miss the presence of the middle class, they do need people to bus tables, trim shrubbery, watch babies, and change bedpans. Immigrants—not native French workers—do most of these jobs. Why this should be so is an economic controversy. Perhaps migrants will do certain tasks that French people will not—at least not at the prevailing wage. Perhaps employers don’t relish paying €10 an hour to a native Frenchman who, ten years earlier, was making €20 in his old position and has resentments to match. Perhaps the current situation is an example of the economic law named after the eighteenth-century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say: a huge supply of menial labor from the developing world has created its own demand.

This is not Guilluy’s subject, though. He aims only to show that, even if French people were willing to do the work that gets offered in these prosperous urban centers, there’d be no way for them to do it, because there is no longer any place for them to live. As a new bourgeoisie has taken over the private housing stock, poor foreigners have taken over the public—which thus serves the metropolitan rich as a kind of taxpayer-subsidized servants’ quarters. Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim.

 At the opening of his new book, Guilluy describes twenty-first-century France as “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural.” It’s a controversial premise—that inequality and racial diversity are linked as part of the same (American-type) system and that they progress or decline together. Though this premise has been confirmed in much of the West for half a century, the assertion will shock many Americans, conditioned to place “inequality” (bad) and “diversity” (good) at opposite poles of a Manichean moral order. This disconnect is a key reason American political discussions have turned so illogical and rancorous. Certain arguments—for instance, that raising the incomes of American workers requires limiting immigration—can be cast as either sensible or superstitious, legitimate or illegitimate, good or evil, depending on whether the person making them is deemed to be doing so on the grounds of economics or identity….

France’s most dangerous political battles play out against this backdrop. The central fact is the 70 percent that we just spoke of: they oppose immigration and are worried, we can safely assume, about the prospects for a multiethnic society. Their wishes are consistent, their passions high; and a democracy is supposed to translate the wishes and passions of the people into government action. Yet that hasn’t happened in France.

Guilluy breaks down public opinion on immigration by class. Top executives (at 54 percent) are content with the current number of migrants in France. But only 38 percent of mid-level professionals, 27 percent of laborers, and 23 percent of clerical workers feel similarly….

As Paris has become not just the richest city in France but the richest city in the history of France, its residents have come to describe their politics as “on the left”—a judgment that tomorrow’s historians might dispute. Most often, Parisians mean what Guilluy calls la gauche hashtag, or what we might call the “glass-ceiling Left,” preoccupied with redistribution among, not from, elites: we may have done nothing for the poor, but we did appoint the first disabled lesbian parking commissioner….

Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them. The immigrants with whom the creatives share the city are dazzlingly different, exotic, even frightening, but on the central question of our time—whether the global economic system is working or failing—they see eye to eye….

Those outside the city gates in la France périphérique are invisible, their wishes incomprehensible. It’s as if they don’t exist. But they do.

The two traditional French parties—the Republicans, who once followed a conservative program elaborated by Charles de Gaulle; and the Socialists, who once followed socialism—still compete for votes, but along an ever-narrowing spectrum of issues. The real divide is no longer between the “Right” and the “Left” but between the metropoles and the peripheries. The traditional parties thrive in the former. The National Front (FN) is the party of the outside.

French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency. Doing so allows them to “present the losers of globalization as embittered people who have problems with diversity,” says Guilluy. It’s not our privilege that the French deplorables resent, the elites claim; it’s the color of some of our employees’ skin. French elites have a thesaurus full of colorful vocabulary for those who resist the open society: repli (“reaction”), crispation identitaire (“ethnic tension”), and populisme (an accusation equivalent to fascism, which somehow does not require an equivalent level of proof). One need not say anything racist or hateful to be denounced as a member of “white, xenophobic France,” or even as a “fascist.” To express mere discontent with the political system is dangerous enough. It is to faire le jeu de (“play the game of”) the National Front….

In France, political correctness is more than a ridiculous set of opinions; it’s also—and primarily—a tool of government coercion. Not only does it tilt any political discussion in favor of one set of arguments; it also gives the ruling class a doubt-expelling myth that provides a constant boost to morale and esprit de corps, much as class systems did in the days before democracy. People tend to snicker when the question of political correctness is raised: its practitioners because no one wants to be thought politically correct; and its targets because no one wants to admit to being coerced. But it determines the current polarity in French politics. Where you stand depends largely on whether you believe that antiracism is a sincere response to a genuine upsurge of public hatred or an opportunistic posture for elites seeking to justify their rule….

Like much in French intellectual life, Guilluy’s newest book is intelligent, original, and rather slapdash. Its maps, while brilliantly conceived, are poorly explained. Its forays into social science are mis-designed—Guilluy’s “indices of fragility” are based on redundant, highly correlated factors that exaggerate the points he means to make. The book has been assembled sloppily and, it seems, hastily. Long prose passages turn up twice on the same page, as if the editor spilled a cup of coffee while cutting and pasting….

But as the prospect of rising in the world is hampered or extinguished, the inducements to ideological conformism weaken. Dissent appears. Political correctness grows more draconian. Finally the ruling class reaches a dangerous stage, in which it begins to lose not only its legitimacy but also a sense of what its legitimacy rested on in the first place.

The Notary, Our Noble Master

Gardeavue

Watched this classic again last night. Lino Ventura plays a detective who subjects a wealthy local lawyer — suspect in the rape and murder of two young girls — to an hours-long interrogation in police headquarters. Lino Ventura intensely watchable as always with his Easter Island head and ludicrously gigantic hands. And Michel Serrault is perfectly cast as the clever, oleaginous yet despairing suspect. Romy Schneider, as his wife, is just plain Romy. She never really becomes anyone else no matter what role she plays, but you won't hear me complaining.

I first saw this movie years ago, before I was even a lawyer, in the U.S. Part of a Romy Schneider film festival. As I watched it again, a few memories of my earlier reaction to the movie came back. First of all, I remember being surprised when the detective tells the suspect that he can call a lawyer, but the lawyer is not entitled to meet him. "Whoa," I thought back then, "that's totally unconstitutional!" Which it would have been, in America.

The second cultural misunderstanding comes from the fact that everyone keeps mentioning that the suspect, Jérôme Martinaud, is a "notary". As an American, I said: "Who cares?" Yet this fact is mentioned several times, and the script calls attention to when and whether characters refer to the suspect as Master (Maître, the official designation for French lawyers and some other professionals). 

In fact, at the time I saw the movie, I was a notary, even though I didn't even have a college degree. In the U.S., the only function of a "notary public" is to put a stamp on official sworn documents. You just ask someone if the document is accurate, get them to sign it, and stamp it. Anyone over 18 who doesn't have a serious criminal record can be a notary. Anyone. You just fill out a form, pay a small fee, and bingo! you're in.

The situation is vastly different in Continental Europe, where notaries must be lawyers. Not only that, they benefit from an ancient privilege system that (1) requires dozens of different kinds of documents to be notarized, and (2) limits the overall number of notaries. This grants most notaries a regional monopoly, reducing competition and driving up costs. The Economist describes the cultural divide:

Notaries are important gatekeepers in many economies, in particular when it comes to establishing property rights—the bedrock of markets. At best, notaries are facilitators who, for instance, verify the identity of the signatories of contracts and the veracity of their statements. At worst, they are overpaid bureaucrats who delay the passage of simple transactions and bloat their cost.

By contrast, notaries are unknown in many common-law countries, such as Britain and its former empire, which take a more freewheeling approach to contracts. America is the odd country out: although its legal system is based on common law, it boasts 4.8m notaries, many part-time. Yet these exist mainly to satisfy America’s maddening appetite for stamps and seals, and have little in common with their highly qualified European namesakes. “They are butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers,” scoffs a European notary.

Both traditions have their drawbacks. In Europe notaries’ highly regulated work has made them the most prosperous of lawyers. Tax returns suggest that Italian notaries are paid better than any other professionals (though perhaps they are most honest about their earnings). A report in 2004 found that notaries made up 22 of Slovenia’s 100 highest earners. French ones are the most privileged of all, says Gisela Shaw, an expert on the profession. They can compete with solicitors to provide legal services. They may sell their practice when they retire.

A website on French property law notes:

With about 5,000 offices, 7,500 notaires and 40,000 assistants, the notarial profession has representation all over France and has an effective monopoly. The Notaire is the public official responsible for receiving all the "actes" and contracts to which the parties wish to confer the seal of authenticity, to assure their date, to hold them in trust and to deliver authentic copies of them.

The Notaire is under the authority of the Minister of Justice (Ministère de la Justice) and is appointed by decree. The Notaire's office (Etude) depends geographically on the area in which he lives.

So the status Jérôme enjoys result from the fact that he is a member of perhaps the most privileged group in French society: lawyers who have gained a coveted notary position. One of Jérôme's first lines of defense is that people are always starting rumors about him because they envy his wealth and social status, which explains why people are circulating unfounded rumors about his involvement in the murders.

It doesn't happen often, but there you have it: an instance in which comparative-law knowledge deepens your understanding of art!

The Sweariest Case Against Dubbing You’ll Ever Hear

Living in Germany as an English-speaking expat is probably easier than living in France. France may be more charmante, but in Germany, stuff works. Having stuff work is a type of charm in itself. The kind that's important when you have to actually live there.

Paul Taylor, an English ginger and comedian who lives in the Hexagon has an amusing YouTube series called "What the Fuck, France?" which explore some of the peculiarities of French life. As you might expect from the title, they're extremely sweary. Why? Because English people are extremely fucking sweary, you fucking knob. Yes, I know that's a fucking cultural stereotype, you condescending prick, but stereotypes exist for a fucking reason.

Here Taylor takes on dubbing, the bane of every expat's existence: 

I will say, in Germany's defense, that German dubbing is extremely good. They've had decades of practice, and they're German. As I said, stuff works here.

The odd thing is I was just in Paris over the weekend, and I can't help noticing that France is rapidly catching up to Germany in the having-stuff-that-works department. The metros and buses run on time and have clear signs, the system of tickets is a hell of a lot simpler than in any German city, and everything's quite clean and orderly, even in the shabbier parts of town. There is still more dogshit on Paris streets, though.

Yet one day, sooner than you think, we are going to reach the Continental Singularity. As Germany gets more random and disorderly and France improves, there will come a time in which the orderlines efficiency of France's infrastructure, bureaucracy, and daily life are all as efficient as Germany's, a condition last seen only in 1788. 

German Word of the Week: Natursekt

Put the kiddies to bed, because this German Word of the Week gets a little blue. Or golden.

Recent events put Donald Trump's alleged partiality to a certain, er, erotic fetish in the spotlight. In English, this fetish is called "golden showers".

In German it's called Natursekt: "Nature's Champagne". Now, of course this isn't a perfect translation, since Sekt is better translated as prosecco or sparkling wine. It's the term used for any sparkling wine which doesn't come from Champagne, the French region which, of course, has a controlled legal monopoly stopping anyone from calling a sparkling wine Champagne unless it's made there by their methods.

And needless to say, Champagne isn't made from urine, unless humanity has been the victim of the greatest hoax the world has ever known (memo to self: write screenplay based on this premise).

But I still think, "Nature's Champagne" is really more true to the light-hearted perversion of the original. I anticipate millions of Germans will encounter the term Natursekt for the first time in the next few days, so keep an eye on this graph.

Of course, millions of Germans already know this term. One of the main reasons is that prostitution is legal in Germany, and working girls, and boys, openly publish their "set cards" on the Internet. Here's one (g) I found, "Carmen" from the Eroscenter Ludwigsburg, which I found completely at random from a website I have never visited before and will never visit again, presented here to you strictly in the name of Science. Carmen says that she is not willing to be the, er, recipient of Nature's Champagne, but is happy to provide that service to her guests.

And what is the proper pairing with Nature's Champagne? Why, Nature's Caviar (g), of course! No, I didn't just make that up. Those who are of a mind to consider Germans ultra-perverse will be unsurprised to learn that paraphilias having to do with human excreta are, in German, compared to mankind's most refined gastronomic delicacies.

After this post, I need a shower — and not the golden kind (ba-da-BOOM!).

…meanwhile in France: Listlessness, Gloom, Mistrust

This handy summary of a poll about attitudes toward government in France comes courtesy of the right-wing Gatestone Institute, and is based on this poll (f):

Public Opinion: In January 2016, Cevipof, a think tank of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), released its seventh Barometer of Political Trust, a poll published annually to measure the values of democracy in the country, and based on interviews with 2074 people:

  • What is your current state of mind? Listlessness 31%, Gloom 29%, Mistrust 28%, Fear: 10%

  • Do you trust government? Not much 58%, not at all 32%

  • Do you trust lawmakers? Not much 39%, not at all 16%%

  • Do you trust the president? Not much 32%; not at all 38%

  • Do politicians care about what the people think? Not much 42%, not at all 46%

  • How democracy is working in France? Not well 43%, not well at all 24%

  • Do you trust political parties? Not much 47%, not at all 40%

  • Do you trust the media? Not much 48% not at all 27 %

  • What do you feel about politics? Distrust 39%; disgust 33%, boredom 8%

  • What do you feel about politicians? Disappointment 54%; disgust 20%

  • Corruption of politicians? Yes 76%

  • Too many migrants? Yes, plus tend to agree: 65%

  • Islam is a threat? Yes, plus tend to agree: 58%

  • Proud to be French? Yes 79%

I don't know about you, but I'd say these numbers are good news for a certain Marine. But then again, French people have been feeling this way for quite some time:

More frenchy

“Merkel is Le Pen’s Ally” Say French Socialists and Conservatives

Deutschlandfunk sends Ursula Welter around Paris to interview (g, my translation) some French political bigwigs about Merkel. Merkel has good relations with French conservatives and considers them allies. But they have had it. First up is Pierre Lellouche, foreign policy spokesman for the French conservatives:

"I don't know, I ask myself just like all the others why she changed course so brutally. She has fueled a crisis, a crisis that can no longer be contained. When she made the decision [to stop enforcing Dublin and open the borders] she sent out an immense clarion call of temptation to millions of people currently housed in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan, not to mention those in Africa and those about to venture a journey over the Mediterranean.

"It's clear that Madame Le Pen will be able to exploit these fears, not us.

"But you can't simply speak of European values when it suits you. German cannot demand quotas from others. If I were Alexis Tsipras, I would demand quotas for Greece and say please take a share of my debts. If I were Francois Hollande I would say give me a quota of German soldiers or helicopters for our operations in Mali."

Xavier Bertrand, a senior conservative figure running against Le Pen in regional voting in northern France says: "German policy is complete nonsense. I will not accept a purely German Europe." When asked whether this crisis threatens Europe, he says yes, clearly. 

The reporter encounters a Socialist deputy, Malek Bouthi, in a TV studio: "One can welcome the generosity of the German people, but Angela Merkel made a serious political mistake for Europe. The truth is that Merkel's behavior triggered crises in neighboring countries, particularly in France. Merkel is Le Pen's ally."

As I've said before, this migrant crisis seems likely to bring solid, long-lasting governing coalitions between the center and nativist right all over Western Europe. This will work out differently in France, since only one person can win the Presidency, but the background dynamics are the same.

‘My First Zonen-Gaby’: An Exegesis of Two Famous Rude German Jokes

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of racial stereotypes and East German hairstyles.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were cultural misunderstandings galore about whether the French satire magazine was an obnoxious racist rag. Some of the Charlie's satirical cartoons contained stereotypical depictions of black people and Muslims, which was enough for many non-French speakers to denounce the magazine. Those who spoke French and knew the French media landscape countered that the editorial line of Charlie Hebdo was left-wing. The use of rude caricatures — whether of blacks, Catholics, gays, or royalty — is simply par for the course in the rollicking, adolescent world of European satire. To those in the know, which includes me, there is no debate: the latter point of view is correct.

Here's another magazine cover that's sure to provoke controversy, this time in Germany. I will now explain the background to you before the controversy erupts. I happen to have learned a lot about Germany, even though I've lived here for over a decade.

The roots of this joke go back to November 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, talk of unification was in the air, and thousands of East Germans were traveling freely to West Germany for the first time. The West German satire magazine Titanic decided to weigh in with a cover. Titanic, you should know, follows the dictum (g) of Kurt Tucholsky: Was darf Satire? Alles. (What is satire alllowed to do? Everything.)

Here is their November 1989 cover:

Zonen gaby

The title reads: 'Zonen-Gaby (17) overjoyed (BRD) : My First Banana'. Let's unpack the cultural signifiers. First, the name. Gaby (short for Gabrielle) is a common name all over Germany, but was especially popular in the East. Zonen-Gaby refers to the fact that she comes from East Germany. Now, there is a whole code governing how one may refer to residents of the former German Democratic Republic. The most polite way is 'People from the New German Federal States'. Quite a mouthful. Then comes East Germans. By the time you get to Ossi, you're in the political-correctness danger zone. And that brings us to Zonies. Right-wing Germans, who never accepted the notion of East Germany as a legitimate, independent state, referred to East Germany as the 'Soviet Occupation Zone' to emphasize its temporary and non-democratic character.

'Zone-Gaby' is 17, and now residing in the BRD, the German initials for West Germany. She has several characteristics of people from the East, including the half-hearted perm and unisex denim jacket. East Germans were very much into these things. If you don't believe me, just look at the footage from the fall of the Wall. East German women were also delighted by geometric plastic earrings. There were lots of dangling red plastic triangles. Gaby has what looks like a peach-colored plastic wind-chime hanging from each ear. Also the teeth. Basic medical care in the State of Workers and Peasants was quite good, but there was neither the money nor the will to provide comrades with bourgeois fripperies like cosmetic dentistry.

And finally we come to the cucumber. Bananas were rare in East Germany, and one of the stereotypes of East Germans coming for a visit to the West (which was allowed under strict regulation) is that they ran to the nearest grocery store to devour exotic tropical fruits unavailable in the East. Poor Zonen-Gaby is evidently unfamiliar with bananas.

This is, without a doubt, the most famous Titanic cover in history, perhaps comparable to National Lampoon's 'If You Don't Buy this Magazine We'll Kill This Dog.' The number of people who found it grossly offensive was outnumbered only by the number who found it funny, which was only outnumbered by the people who found it both.

And now, 25 years later, Titanic has just outdone itself:

Refugee joe

Even if you're not German-Powered™, you can probably see where this is going. The more sensitive among you should click away now. I'll give you a few seconds.

OK, we're back. I will now continue to dissect the joke, solely in the name of cross-cultural understanding, and perhaps Science. Our old friend Zonen-Gaby is back, this time in the company of 'Refugee Joe.' The title reads: 'Refugee Joe (52 cm) overjoyed (asylum): My First Zonen-Gaby'. As we also see, Zonen-Gaby is (still) overjoyed at meeting her new friend. Her thought bubble reads 'Hee-hee — Banana Joe'! The black band promises 'Even more asylum critique in the magazine!'

The reference to 52cm should be self-explanatory. Although I should note for accuracy's sake that the current owner of the world's longest penis is an American (of course) and his glistening missile of sin is only 13.5 inches, or 34.2 cm long. Erect.

Where to Avoid in Paris

While we're on the subject of neighborhoods you might not want to visit in the USA, here's a long and well-written post by Ms. French Mystique on TripAdvisor about places you might wish to avoid in (or more accurately around) Paris:

Now it seems like I am the only true life long Paris suburbanite here so I suppose it qualifies me to comment in further detail about living in the Paris suburbs. Which I do happily and by choice. However I must warn you that it is VERY LONG to read even though I will only say a fraction of what I could say about the suburbs. It will include some family history as my family is quite typical of an era that shaped Paris's recent urban/suburban history.

As someone from a working class family who grew up in a bourgeois suburb, all I can say is I am grateful my parents did not decide to move to one of the these northern "bad" suburbs. In the 1950's my mother lived in Saint-Germain-des-Prés while my father had moved from central France to the 9th arrondissement. At the time there was full employment in Paris but the housing situation was terrible following WWII. There was a big housing crisis due to the massive WWII destruction and the babyboom, there were slums in Paris and a lot of apartments did not have modern comfort or much hygiene. The 6th may have become the most expensive arrondissement in Paris now but it wasn't always this way. My mother was dirt poor when she lived there with a roommate. Needless to say she wasn't hanging out with Sartre and Beauvoir who despite their so-called social commitment wouldn't have touched people of her class with a ten-foot pole. She was attending an Ecole Ménagère, where you learn cleaning, sewing, ironing, in other words she was learning how to become a servant (she indeed worked as a servant in her late teens), not to become part of the ruling class. Both my parents moved to the working-class southern suburb of Ivry in the early 1960's and that is how they met as they were neighbors.

At that time, the 'cités hlm' (the vast high rise subsidized housing blocks of flats that give some neighborhoods a bad reputation) were built as an answer to the housing crisis. Both inside and outside Paris. But the largest ensembles were built in the previously semi-rural zones of northern Paris inSeine Saint-Denis and Val d'Oise. Others replaced vast shantytowns that existed outside Paris. When these huge apartment buildings were built people were overjoyed at the possibility of living there. They were coming from no home of their own or terrible housing and the prospect of having better lodging was appealing. Compared to what they would have had in Paris or just outside the périphérique, these new apartments offered everything they could dream of: they were large, bright, clean, had central heating and bathrooms. Something that the poorer classes in Paris did not have.

Now for most of you the bad housing projects of northern Paris (and to a lesser extent other suburbs) are just something you read about or hear about in the news. But for me I can't help wondering what my life would have been like if my parents had made the terrible mistake of moving to one of these brand new neighborhoods (built in the middle of nowhere in the middle of fields far away from any town center, cultural life or services) and I had been born and raised there. They instead moved to Ivry, an old run down industrial town and when they got together they decided they wanted to move to a better neighborhood. They looked into the bourgeois town of Nogent but ended up buying a small condo in Saint-Maur which took them over 30 years to pay off. I grew up in a 60 sq.meter condo with no balcony and where my parents didn't have a bedroom and had to sleep in the sofa bed in the living-room but at least I grew up in a safe, geographically beautiful and culturally stimulating environment.

Now another reason these bad suburbs ring a little too close to home is my job. As a middle-school teacher I am in one of the professional categories that are the most exposed to urban/youth violence. Public school teachers in France are public servants employed by the state, as such we don't choose where we work. We are sent where we are needed. School districts throughout France are divided into 'académies' and mine is the académie of Créteil which includes 3 départements: Val-de-Marne (zip code 94), Seine-et-Marne (77) and the infamous Seine Saint-Denis (93), the most "dangerous" part of France. While the other two départements have their share of bad areas, they are still the minority, whereas they are particularly prevalent in the 93. So when you are a young teacher, your biggest fear is to be sent there. When at age 23 I received my appointment letter and the first thing I saw in the letter was the dreaded 93 figure, I immediately had a big lump in my throat, I could feel my face flush, my heart thumping and my eyes water. In France when you tell people you have taught middle-school in Seine Saint-Denis they look at you as if you were just back from fighting inIraq or Afghanistan. And the reputation of Seine Saint-Denis being a war zone is not unjustified. Ask the many teachers who have been victims of physical abuse.

Now luckily I have never been one of them. When I called my parents to tell them where I had been appointed my father quickly reassured me as he knew it well. The town I was going to spend the next 9 years of my career, Gournay-sur-Marne, is actually not typical of the département and despite its zip code is one of the safest suburbs around Paris. That put an end to a prejudice lumping all the towns of Seine-Saint-Denis into one undiscriminate category. Actually 60% of Seine Saint-Denis's 40 communes enjoy a much lower violent crime rate than Paris. However the violent crime rate of Seine Saint-Denis as a département is very high, but the violence is highly concentrated into certain zones. As a teacher in Gournay I got to set foot in several towns of Seine Saint-Denis either for work (meetings, workshops, etc) or to visit co-workers who lived there so I have a decent idea of the variety of neighborhoods. I also have relatives living in Pierrefitte sur Seine that I visit occasionally. As much as I love my cousin I dread driving there: it is so depressing. Last time I went was a few weeks ago, traffic had been exceptionally smooth and I arrived really early for lunch. Since it was a beautiful sunny day I decided to walk in the neighborhood for half an hour. I was seeing it in the best conditions possible, gorgeous weather and all, yet all the while I was wondering how anyone could live there by choice. I have no desire whatsoever to live in Paris or in rural areas for instance but I can at least see what appeal it could hold for others, but there, I failed to find any appeal: a few blocks of charmless suburban houses surrounded by ugly high rise buildings, a train track cutting you from the rest of the town and the only shopping available was a mini-mart at the end of a parking lot at the foot of a cité. Not a single market street in sight, nothing that felt like a city with a town center, no bus stop or métro or RER station or service of any kind and above all, no beauty anywhere. Not my idea of a pleasant neighborhood and the complete opposite of where I live. This cousin is from Saint-Ouen and she grew up in a cité at first and then in a small condo near the town hall. Her father, my uncle, worked at the car factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, was an active unionist, so I can see how people with strong left wing political values can feel ideologically attached to working class neighborhoods and do not want to leave a sinking ship. But even they sometimes admit things haven't been changing for the better and I know they feel a little trapped now, as pleasant as their house may be. As someone who has lived and worked in the suburbs all my life and who knows people who live in very different neighborhoods from mine including the cités hlm there are dozens of other anecdotes I could tell you but it would be too long. In any case, my experience is well beyond just 'setting foot' there.

Now in this thread phread and I have expressed disagreement with kerouac's introductory sentence to his report in regards to the media. I don't blame the media for depicting some of the northern suburbs as dangerous. Some districts are indeed dangerous there. That being said, let's keep in mind that danger can mean different things to different people depending on where they are from and what type of crime is prevalent in their country. Here homicide is extremely rare compared to North America for instance. There are dangerous districts in Paris itself despite what is often reported on this forum (good luck enjoying your midnight stroll on Place Stalingrad) and elsewhere in the suburbs, including the safest départements where you can have very isolated but violent pockets of crime. For instance the Yvelines, west of Paris is extremely safe, posh and beautiful overall but it has some of France's worst cités (in Trappes and Mantes-la-Jolie). What I blame the media for since the 1990's is lumping anything outside the périphérique as being bad and unsafe when statistically you are much safer from violent crime outside the Paris city boundaries than inside. Or they depict suburban living as boring, as if the towns outside Paris were not real towns with jobs, market streets, cinemas, theatres and artistic or cultural events within walking distance. We have all that in most of the urban suburbs, thank you. And settlements going back to prehistory, town centers from the Middle Ages and historic monuments galore. The suburbs are real living cities, not bedroom communities depending on Paris for employment and culture. The only thing the suburbs don't have is night life. Which for some people is an advantage.

I live in the suburbs by choice because I have a passion for the riverside atmosphere and guinguette culture in the towns around me, because I am surrounded by natural beauty where I can enjoy lovely walks, because I can have a little backyard of my own to enjoy with my animals (remember I grew up in a tiny condo with no personal outdoor space) while having absolutely everything within walking distance and yes, because it is very safe.

Drawing conclusions on the safety of the suburbs from listening to incidents in the news is akin to declaring air travel extremely dangerous because the only times it makes the news is when a plane crashes. Almost 100% of the time it is safe to fly. It's the same thing in the suburbs. Drawing conclusions about what the suburbs look like from driving along a route nationale lined with strip malls or getting off the RER in a soul-less modern district is as if I was commenting on the beauty of Paris seen from the périphérique. Because when you drive on the périphérique on the Parisian side apart from the occasional glimpse of the Eiffel Tower or Sacré Coeur, all you see is Paris's high rise housing projects whereas on the other side (that would be the suburban side) all you see is office buildings. These views would hardly define what is on either side of the périphérique, would it?

Working in and visiting Seine-Saint-Denis on several occasions has put an end to some of the prejudice I had against the place as a whole and has also confirmed that there is serious ground for the ill reputation in some areas. The suburbs of Paris are way too varied for me to describe in detail (and I obviously don't know them all) but most of them are very pretty and interesting with a rich history (not just local history but major national events), some are charmless, some are ghettos, some are urban, some are quaint rural villages with no direct transportation link with Paris, some are grand royal suburbs or UNESCO heritage cities visited by international visitors. Overall most are great for residents to live in but would not be worth a trip for tourists unless they are interested in getting a bigger picture of Paris within its region. But the suburbs are for the most part what 9 million of us call home.

Full disclosure: I like to get off the beaten track, so I've wandered around in many of the bad neighborhoods in Paris and nothing happened to me. Did get stared at a lot, though.