The banlieues have faced similar problems of unemployment and purchasing power for years. Over decades, they have also become a shorthand for people of color and problems of “integration”—code for a thicket of problems around economics, schools, social mobility, and even Islamic radicalism. These issues have simmered for years, without the kind of media attention that the yellow-vest protests have drawn. In December, a woman from Chanteloup-les-Vignes in Yvelines, a Paris suburb, who identified herself only as Yasmine F., wrote a blog post about why she wasn’t joining the yellow-vest protests. “To have trouble paying for gas means you already need to be able to pay for a car, have a job and degrees, and to get degrees and a job you need to be able to benefit from a better education and not to constantly be the victim of racism, discrimination and disdain from the upper classes,” she wrote. “For me, all those struggles come before the one about rising gas prices.”
There’s also a feeling of resignation in the banlieues. Many residents of the banlieues say a series of French governments have turned their back on the problems. They find it ironic that when a far smaller number of demonstrators don yellow vests and stand at traffic roundabouts to protest a hike in fuel taxes, “the whole world listens,” Nordine told me. “When in 2005 there were the problems and the suburbs were burning, voilà, everyone considered that total chaos. People said, ‘They don’t love France.’ But no, actually we love France. We’re French. People may think that, but in fact, they just don’t give a damn about us. It’s a feeling of rage.”
Some elected officials in the banlieues worry, too, that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears, and think: So why should we get involved now? Catherine Arenou, the mayor of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, told me that she found it puzzling when Macron jump-started a national conversation about income inequality because of the yellow-vest protests, after his government had rejected a series of detailed proposals about how to fix the French banlieues that a government-appointed committee submitted last summer. Known as the Borloo Plan, it recommended a 2-billion-euro ($2.25-billion) investment in education, public transportation, computer literacy, and initiatives to help women become more economically independent. “We spent six months making recommendations,” Arenou said of the report, “and he threw them into the trash can.”
That’s why her town did not host one of Macron’s debate evenings, in which he shows up and talks to citizens—sometimes boring them to tears, if the comments on online forums are anything to go by. Arenou said it would make things far worse if Macron were to come and once again not listen to concrete proposals. Macron visited other suburbs, but not Chanteloup-les-Vignes.
Above all, Arenou told me that she’s worried about a face-off between rural and urban issues, when in fact they are largely similar. “We’re heading somewhere troubling,” she said. “We’re trying to contrast different poverties, as if the poverty of cities and that of the countryside were at odds with each other.”
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