For the non-French among you, the pun in the title will escape you but for those of us who survived the Chirac presidential campaigns and presidency only thanks to Les Guignols De L’Info, we all remember that the social fracture was Chirac’s big theme (not he did much about it, like any good conservative). The campaign slogan though had the merit of capturing the reality of increasing stratification in France in the 1990s, and things have not improved since, according to this interview with Didier Lapeyronnie in Le Monde.
The current government has decided that the transformation of housing projects into ghettos needed only one type of policy: law and order. But what is going on with French ghettos anyway?
Ten years ago, says Lapeyronnie, he would not have used the term "ghetto" because a ghetto is not simply the concentration of impoverished population. A ghetto is both an enclosed urban area, closed off to the rest of society, and also a sort of counter-society with its specific way of life. In other words, ghettos are socially constructed from the outside – as effects of social and racial segregation – and from the inside – through the emergence of a social organization which allows to cope and compensate for the wounds inflicted by society.
But since the 1980s, there is no doubt, for Lapeyronnie, that the relationships between the inhabitants of these areas and the rest of the city are degrading. We do now observe the emergence of a counter-society whose inhabitants share one social experience in common: discrimination which has a lot to do with racial experience. This discrimination means having to live in an urban space one has not chosen, to feel victimized by society and stigmatized by those who are full citizens ("the French", "the whites") while ghetto dwellers are not and have to live with the stigma.
Not all working-class and underclass areas are ghettos, according to this definition, but many of them are. Paradoxically, for Lapeyronnie, ghettoization is more advanced not in suburbs of France’s large urban centers but in the suburbs of mid-size cities. There, the social and ethnic enclosure is stronger, and the current economic recession will probably make things worse. It is a well-known fact that the poor get hit more violently by economic downturns.
For Lapeyronnie, France’s elites have a hard time acknowledging that there are ghettos in this country, and the extent of ghettoization as well as social closure (on the other hand, social workers have recognized them for what they are a long time ago). Part of it may be that it goes back to Jewish history or because the term refers to the American black ghetto. The idea is that a ghetto is by definition a homogeneous (racial / ethnic) community with its own culture, which goes against the French republican model of assimilation. To acknowledge the existence of closed ethnic spaces would be to acknowledge the failure of that model. However, in his book, Le Ghetto Urbain, Lapeyronnie shows that the ghetto is the opposite of a community.
Lapeyronnie also connects the existence of the ghetto with a degradation of men / women relationships. For him, in France, femininity allows to partly escape from racism. When girls from a North African background adopt French feminine standards, they are more likely to be let in clubs, while young men from the same background are turned down. For these young men, it is a source of humiliation and they perceive women’s emancipation as another sign of their marginalization. For them, femininity is betrayal. So, they tend to fall back on traditional gender conceptions, with clearly defined and rigid familial roles. They cling to a definition of masculinity that is more patriarchal and phallocratic to defend their status.
All this is part of the profound nature of the ghetto: involuntary social closure but also a mode of protection against a society that excludes the ghetto’s inhabitants. For Lapeyronnie, the ghetto is then a universe of stereotypes from which everyone tries to escape, but where everyone is complicit.