France: The ‘Banlieues’ Vote for the Right?

Municipal elections are upcoming in France in the next weeks. A front-page headline on the subject in the weekend edition (Feb. 17-18) of the daily Le Monde would undoubtedly shock many readers of traditional English-language new sources. “Municipal Elections,” it reads, “Banlieues on the Right, Downtown on the Left.” Banlieues on the Right? The very word “banlieues” became widely-known to English speakers last year not only on account of the violence with which the outskirts of France’s major urban centers are regularly afflicted, but also because of the supposed hatred of their residents for the presidential candidate of the French Right: current French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Writing in the New York Times magazine, author David Rieff went so far as to begin an article on the banlieues by quoting a young “banlieusard” proffering a death threat against Sarkozy.

But as I pointed out in a response to Rieff’s article on WPR, the notion of Nicolas Sarkozy being the “Scourge of the Banlieues” was always a myth. The very town where Rieff met his fierce young interlocutor who wanted to “kill” Sarkozy, in fact voted for Sarkozy by a comfortable margin. More generally, while the election data showed many of France’s banlieues tilting to the “Left” and Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, the tilt was by no means as pronounced as one would have been led to believe by tendentious and factually-challenged reporting like that of Rieff.

Now, however, Le Monde reports that Socialist Party officials are concerned about “an irresistible move to the Right” of the banlieues. On the other hand, the paper suggests that President Sarkozy’s UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) will have trouble holding on to downtown districts “affected by the arrival of well-to-do couples with new ‘qualitative’ expectations.” As I noted in my earlier article, chic downtown neighborhoods in Paris in fact already massively voted Socialist and Royal in the 2007 presidential elections: another detail that does not jibe with the vision of French “class politics” commonly conveyed by the established American media.

Le Monde cites the views of Jean-Jack Queyranne, the Socialist President of the regional council of the Rhone-Alps region. Referring to the population of downtown Lyon, Queyranne

. . . thinks that this electorate — largely influenced by questions of lifestyle, culture and the environment — matches up well with the political program of the PS. . . . On the other hand, certain traditional strongholds of the Left — Saint-Priest or Meyzieu in the banlieues of Lyons — have swung to the Right in recent years.

Queyranne and Le Monde offer a rather tortured sociological explanation for the phenomenon, claiming that a higher rate of home ownership in the banlieues accounts for the growing appeal of the “Right.” But the more obvious explanation is that the residents of the banlieues themselves are the ones who suffer the most from the violence in their neighborhoods. To this degree, it is only normal that many would be drawn to a party that proposes to crack down on the violence, rather than one that seems often to justify it or even to pander to its perpetrators. (See my December WPR report “Ségolène Royal and the War in France’s Banlieues.”)

This explanation, however, is given predictably short shrift by Queyranne and Le Monde. “Behind the resonance of questions of security or the fear of finding oneself in competition with other social categories,” Queyranne observes, “one senses the influence of the mode of housing.”

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