Coronavirus lockdown stirs can-do spirit in France’s poor suburbs

Why We Wrote This

France’s pandemic lockdown is hitting its suburbs hard, compounding their economic and crime woes. But they are also showing a communal, volunteer spirit that is helping them through the crisis.

Courtesy of Les Grands Frères&Soeurs De Sartrouville.
The overnight emergency room staff at the Hospital Center d'Argenteuil, in the suburbs northwest of Paris, hold signs thanking nonprofit Les Grands Frères & Soeurs De Sartrouville for its donation of food.

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Life was not easy in France's poorest suburbs, or banlieues, before the coronavirus pandemic. But the ensuing lockdown has magnified the inequalities for their inhabitants.

Many continue to take public transportation to get to work, raising health risks, or find themselves confined to tiny apartments with numerous people. In homes where internet connections are shoddy or parents are uneducated, home schooling is next to impossible. Local media reports continue to portray banlieues as hotspots for incivility and infection.

But the banlieues are also where those like Piroo, a resident of the Paris suburb of Sartrouville, are making a difference. “I realized that [the nightly tradition of] clapping for health care staff wasn’t enough,” he says. “We needed to do something concrete for them.” So he organized numerous local businesses – as well as neighbors stuck at home – to collect and donate food and prepared meals to local hospitals.

Such banlieue-based nonprofits demonstrate a unique solidarity that is guiding local communities out of their darkest days. “The volunteer sector is very strong in many working-class neighborhoods,” says Sylvie Tissot, a sociologist and professor of political science at the University of Paris 8. “Often times, people are united by shared hardship, poverty, and shortages.”

France’s poorest suburbs, or banlieues, have long struggled with notoriety as places where drug dealing, delinquency, and unemployment abound. Now, amid the country’s lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, that reputation has only gotten worse. Local media reports continue to portray banlieues as hotspots for incivility and the propagation of the coronavirus.

It speaks to a discrimination felt twice over by those living with limited means, where many must continue working menial jobs during confinement or already lack adequate housing and resources.

It's also shortsighted, for the banlieues are where those like Piroo, a 20-something resident of the Paris suburb of Sartrouville, are making a difference. “Faced with this epidemic, I realized that [the nightly tradition of] clapping for health care staff wasn’t enough,” says Piroo, who uses an assumed name in his charity work to protect his privacy. “We needed to do something concrete for them.”

So via his local organization, Les Grands Frères & Soeurs De Sartrouville, he organized Sartrouville residents to donate time, food, and acts of goodwill to help those in need, particularly the country’s overtaxed health professionals. Through his efforts, numerous local businesses – as well as neighbors stuck at home – have donated food and prepared meals for local hospitals. And jumping off from a neighborhood cleanup program he was involved with last summer, he launched the #CleanTonHall initiative, calling on young people living in public housing to clean their buildings, in order to take the pressure off cleaning staff.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

As France’s lockdown continues into its fourth week, banlieue-based nonprofits are working to highlight the inequalities experienced by those living in the country’s poorest neighborhoods and reverse the negative image surrounding them. They also intend to show that a unique solidarity exists there that is guiding local communities out of their darkest days and setting an example for the rest of the country.

“The volunteer sector is very strong in many working-class neighborhoods,” says Sylvie Tissot, a sociologist and professor of political science at the University of Paris 8, whose research focuses on public housing and gentrification. “Often times, people are united by shared hardship, poverty, and shortages. This creates solidarity between people and the desire to help one another.”

Banlieue-bashing

Even if France has made strides in recent years to improve misconceptions around banlieues, their negative reputation has been hard to shake. Since France's lockdown began, people from impoverished communities have been photographed congregating outside in groups, having run-ins with police, or robbing shuttered stores.

Métropop, a nonprofit that aims to stop “banlieue-bashing,” says France’s working class are neither irresponsible nor blind to the risks of the coronavirus, and that France’s suburbs have suffered stigma for 40 years.

“There has been a media portrayal pointing the finger at people from certain working-class neighborhoods, that they’re not respecting the lockdown, even if we can see the same behaviors in other well-to-do areas,” says Virginie Lions, director of a community involvement branch of Métropop.

In addition, these same communities face double discrimination. Not only must they battle their negative representation, but they are the populations making the most personal sacrifices during the lockdown. While hordes of wealthy French set off for the countryside ahead of the lockdown or are comfortably working from home, the confinement has magnified the inequalities for those less fortunate.

Many continue to take public transportation to get to work, raising health risks, or find themselves confined to tiny apartments with numerous people. In homes where internet connections are shoddy or parents are uneducated, home schooling is next to impossible.

Medical deserts – communities suffering from a lack of health care professionals – are also deteriorating as the pandemic continues. Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in the Paris region, has one of the highest death rates due to the virus, counting more than 500 as of early April and a 63% jump in mortalities during the last half of March.

“Being confined in the banlieue is different from anywhere else: no backyard, no balcony,” says Madeleine, a young woman from Saint Denis who told her story to Métropop. “When I open my window, all I see is other buildings. Everyday I turn in circles, looking for something to occupy my time.”

Others recount a constant police presence and undue violence toward its youth population. In early April, several videos circulated online of young people being thrown to the ground by groups of police after they were asked for the official form that French people must carry when venturing outside during the lockdown.

“The populations that are struggling the most are the ones who are the least protected,” says Marie-Hélène Bacqué, a professor of urban studies at the University of Paris-Nanterre. “They’re the ones who must continue working – as cleaners, delivery people, or supermarket cashiers. They’re fundamental in ensuring that our daily lives continue and yet they’re the least protected in terms of public health.”

“Diversity and solidarity”

The shared discrimination and lack of resources that many in Paris’s banlieues face has acted as the glue that unites communities together. Living in close proximity to one another, often fighting the same fights, translates to a natural desire to reach out to one another.

“There is a form of solidarity that already exists here, people very easily organize volunteer missions,” says Ms. Bacqué. “In studies I’ve conducted, when people are asked what characterizes their neighborhood, they say ‘diversity and solidarity.’”

Many groups in Paris’ banlieues have worked to change the negative image of their hometowns through community action – and they haven’t stopped their activities simply because of the coronavirus lockdown. If anything, it has made the push for volunteerism even stronger, such that the country has seen a big enough spike in volunteerism that many nonprofits are having to turn people away.

In addition to Piroo’s Sartrouville initiatives, a host of nonprofits are reorienting their activities to help some of the most vulnerable populations, who are even more isolated during the confinement period.

Emergence 93, which normally works to reintegrate former juvenile prisoners back into the community, has helped its youth organize a campaign to get donations for Seine-Saint-Denis’ homeless population. And nonprofit Frères d’Espoir, a brother-sister team that operates out of Limeil Brévannes southeast of Paris, has continued its volunteer actions of handing out food, clothing, and hygiene kits to homeless people across Paris.

“People who live in the banlieues are normal. We have jobs. We’re not all druggies or throwing rocks at the cops,” says Piroo, from his home in Sartrouville. “There are some fantastic people that live here and there are really great things taking place.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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