The hidden face of French suburban life

VSPASS THROUGH Farmland in a regional natural park, the approach to La Chapelle-en-Vexin is not dominated by its 12th century chapel but by newly built two-story houses. With their dormers, sloping tiled roofs and carefully designed gardens housing estates offer a French version of American suburban life: children’s play area, barbecue terrace and, most importantly, off-street parking. In this village of just 333 inhabitants, a three-bedroom off-plan house with garage is on sale for € 260,000 ($ 320,000), the same as a dismal studio in central Paris.

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Only 65 km separate La Chapelle-en-Vexin from the cobbled boulevards of the French capital. Both belong to the greater Paris region, Île-de-France. Still, everyday concerns couldn’t be more different.

The suburbs RER the express line does not reach that far. 85% of residents drive to work. The villagers are worried about the pollution. A big local issue is an effort to have a bypass constructed to divert heavy traffic from driving through the center. But the roads support everyday life. Shopping is done by car in a hypermarket. No one in the village uses a bicycle to get to work. “We do not feel at all close to Paris”, declares Joëlle Valenchon, the mayor: “We are a little forgotten.

The French capital, with 2.2 million inhabitants, is eclipsed by its region, which has 12.2 million. About 3 to 4 m of them live on its semi-rural edges. Such places, where 87% of trips are made by car, feel distant from the concerns of the capital. The policy in Paris, led by Anne Hidalgo, a socialist supported by the Greens, is increasingly that of bicycle-sharing, pedestrianization, revegetation (greening) of concrete spaces and micro-agriculture on the roofs. Paris aspires to be a “city at 15 minutes”, a concept developed by Carlos Moreno, urban planner. The idea is that everything – school, work, shopping, sports, cafes – should be within a 15-minute walk of the house or five minutes by bike. “Mine actually looks more like a two-minute city,” says a Parisian city dweller, who rents an electric bike for further excursions.

The disconnection between Paris and the outskirts of its region has political implications. The first is that Ms Hidalgo, who is seen as an anti-car crusader and could run for the French presidency next year, may find it difficult to appeal far beyond the peripheral. The Parisian ring road, built half a century ago, has become a gigantic concrete symbol of the separation of the capital and its suburbs. Life on the housing estates on the outskirts of the region, it has more in common with the villages and towns of France than with central Paris.

Divergent geographic interests also help explain why efforts over the years to merge the overlapping administrative structures that govern Paris and the region have been limited. As it stands, the capital seems rather happy not to run the suburbs, with their brutalist housing estates that sound like Paris itself. The semi-rural municipalities are even more neglected. “For 30 years, the capital’s growth has benefited the closest suburbs, but it has also reinforced the contrast with the outer periphery,” explains Aurélien Delpirou, from the School of Urbanism in Paris.

The other Marine

The fringes of Greater Paris also carry a political warning. In the European Parliament elections in 2019, the Greens’ vote was concentrated in the center of Paris. Much of the outer fringe, however, voted for Marine Le Pen’s National Populist Rally. Studies by Hervé Le Bras, geographer, show that the vote of the National Rally tends to increase with the distance from a station. Isolation and fear of crime play a role, as does the feeling that the government is ignoring the issues of rural voters. In next month’s regional elections, National Rally candidate Jordan Bardella is Ms. Le Pen’s young MP.

The campaign for Île-de-France captures the divide between Paris and its region. Valérie Pécresse, current center-right regional president, is the favorite. All the candidates with more than 10% qualify for a second round, where she risks facing both Mr. Bardella and a left-wing candidate, possibly the Greens Julien Bayou (President Emmanuel Macron’s candidate is fourth) . Ms. Pécresse, who moved the headquarters of the Paris region to the suburbs, distanced herself from Parisian politicians. It opposes the pedestrianization of parts of central Paris, as it has pushed congestion and pollution to the outskirts. Fashionable bearded Mr. Bayou, meanwhile, got into trouble last month over posters aimed at young voters, which hinted that “hunters” and “baby boomers” were not interested in the game. climate change.

Greenery is at the heart of this tension and competing interests are complex. In Marines, a small town with a cobbled central plaza, locals cherish the environment as well as their cars. Daniel Hermand, who works at the town hall, says he left Paris for a quieter life close to nature and forests. If the pandemic and the resulting work from home push more families out, they can bring their hobbies and politics with them. Ms. Pécresse has therefore ensured that she is also eco-responsible. It has launched an electric bicycle rental program and promises a network of cycle routes corresponding to those of the RER train lines.

“Of course, it’s good that people use the bicycle,” says Othman Nasrou, Ms. Pécresse’s assistant. “But environmental policy cannot be done to the detriment of those who have to use their cars.” Mr. Macron learned it the hard way when yellow vests (yellow vests) launched huge protests against an increase in the fuel tax. It is not a fashionable policy to listen to car owners, nor to the quiet concerns of those on the fringes. But the housing estates Greater Paris and their electoral habits suggest that policymakers who recklessly punish car addicts do so at their peril.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Beyond the Fringe”


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