The Wordsmith

Singing the Banlieue Blues

From unemployment and poverty to crime and riots, the towns around France’s major cities seem to be no-go-zones and a focal point for the nation’s main social problems. But is this the whole story?
© Sylvie Serprix/France-Amérique

For many French people, the word banlieue is not an enchanting one. It conjures up images of underprivileged – not to say squalid – suburban areas, far from services and overrun by drug dealers. It often refers to places of ill-repute, towns to which immigrants and the country’s very poorest are relegated. And banlieue does sound similar to bannissement (“banishment”), but the etymology paints an entirely different picture. Ban, a term of Frankish origin (the language of the Franks), originally described the law dictated by the local lord and, by extension, the territory under the jurisdiction of said seigneur. This applied to an area of one or more “leagues,” or lieues, an ancient measure equivalent to around 2.5 miles.

It was in the 19th century that the word took on its modern, pejorative connotations. Inhabitants of largely rural areas on the outskirts of large cities were perceived by “true city dwellers” as boorish and backward. The term banlieusard, the equivalent of bouseux or pèquenot (“yokel” or “redneck”) for country folk, appeared in the late 19th century. But in the early 20th century, the population in these outlying areas, particularly in the Paris region, began to gradually change. Farmers and market gardeners were replaced by laborers and other employees who either worked in Paris or in the factories springing up around the capital.

On the edge of Paris, the faubourgs – urban areas home to impoverished populations that developed fors le bourg, meaning “outside the city” in old French – soon garnered a disreputable reputation. Yet as they were integrated into the expanding city over time, these neighborhoods were gentrified and became more desirable locations. Look no further than the current Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which houses the presidential Elysée Palace! Beyond these faubourgs, between Paris and the suburbs, lay a half-urban, half-rural area – shantytowns before their time – where the lumpenproletariat made a living with piecemeal jobs such as waste disposal, peddled trades, and crafts. This came to be known as la Zone, and the word has stuck, designating unsanitary, dangerous areas.

While we’re on the subject of language, another turning point came in the early 1920s when the Communist Party became the dominant force in towns around Paris. This gave rise to the expression banlieues rouges (the “red suburbs”). Half a century later, the term banlieues-dortoirs (literally “dormitory suburbs”) was coined to describe commuter towns whose residents work far from home. In contrast to this desolate image, some suburban Parisian towns, such as Neuilly-sur-Seine, Saint-Cloud, Le Vésinet, and Maisons-Laffitte, all to the west of Paris, bask in almost arrogant wealth.

The American inhabitants of the “suburbs,” an equivalent (but not exact translation) of les banlieues, are generally from the White middle-classes. However, in France and most other European countries, the towns and cities that make up the première couronne or “first ring” of the banlieues are mainly home to people of more modest means. These include both residential areas filled with houses and the large projects built from the 1950s onwards. The latter are often home to a high percentage of families from immigrant backgrounds living on the poverty line. Over the decades, the vocabulary has evolved or, rather, diversified. We no longer use the word HLM (habitation à loyer modéré, “rent-controlled housing”) but rather cités to refer to these projects. And through a well-worn process of semantic sleight of hand, les quartiers populaires (“working-class neighborhoods”) have become simply les quartiers, in the same way that les transports en commun (“public transportation”) has been abbreviated to les transports.

As we know, words are not static; our understanding of them adapts to the realities they describe. In the past, the term quartier was used to describe a subdivision of the city, with accompanying images of a pleasant, collective way of life in spaces designed on a human scale. In Paris, this word referred to the Belleville, Ménilmontant, Montparnasse, and Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhoods, along with, of course, the famous Latin Quarter. The beaux quartiers (“well-heeled neighborhoods”) of Auteuil and Passy also drew both praise and envy. However, today’s quartiers, a series of soulless low-rise blocks and high-rise towers, are home to the scourges of modern society, from unemployment and crime to an abject lack of neighborliness…

Meanwhile, less affluent inhabitants have been driven out of city centers (particularly in Paris), and forced into the nearby suburbs or even further afield where housing prices are more affordable. They have been replaced by new demographic groups nicknamed bobos (for bourgeois-bohème) with higher incomes and less conventional lifestyles. But the French capital, a setting for all sorts of social innovations like other major cities, is continuously evolving. And the vocabulary in this field is sure to follow suit.

Article published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.