From Red Belt to Black Belt: Race, Class, and Urban Marginality in Twentieth-Century Paris
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From Red Belt to Black Belt: Race, Class, and Urban Marginality in Twentieth-Century Paris Tyler Stovall SEVERAL YEARS AGO, while attending a conference in Paris, I had an interesting conversation with an African-American woman who lived in the city and had come to see my panel on racism in Europe. When she asked what kind of research I did, I told her that I had written a book on the working class suburbs of Paris, an area commonly known as the Red Belt for its historic tendency to vote Communist. She responded to this by saying, "The Red Belt! Well, it's the Black Belt now!" This brief, offhand remark has remained with me ever since, because it neatly sums up a widely-held popular and academic view of the evolution of Paris's outskirts during the twentieth century. Simply put, this view suggests that, whereas during the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century the Paris suburbs achieved notoriety for their large working-class, politically radical population, in the last 20 years they have in contrast become a central symbol of immigration and racial conflict in France. The spatial margins of the French capital thus have come successively to represent marginalities based first on class then on race. The problems of class and race explored in this essay certainly exist in the suburbs of cities other than Paris. The first major riots of the 1980s took place outside Lyons, for example, and the outskirts of Marseilles and other major urban areas have also seen class and race divisions. However, this essay will concentrate on the suburbs of Paris.1 Not only do they represent by far the biggest suburban region in the country, but the polarity between a bourgeois central city and marginal outskirts is most advanced there. Moreover, the Paris suburbs have far and away the richest and most extensive scholarly studies devoted to them, and in general have occupied the national imagination much more than those of other cities. Their position just outside the gates of power makes their marginal status all the more striking. In this essay I wish to explore this perspective in relation to the contemporary history of the Paris suburbs, considering the ways in which ideas of difference based upon class and race have characterized them. I will argue that such a view is somewhat simplistic and tends to reify notions of race and class.2 Instead, one must consider the ways in which the two have interacted Vol. XLI, No. 3 9 L'Esprit Créateur in shaping twentieth-century ideas of the suburban frontier of Paris. Ultimately the experience of the Paris suburbs can serve as a model for an understanding of race and class that views both concepts as dynamic, relational, and constantly evolving. In this context ideas of race and class constitute a repertoire of alternate approaches to social difference, used in ways that reflect the broader tensions in French society at any given historical moment.3 Finally, I wish to support arguments made by Anne McClintock and others that the concept of the postcolonial is not necessarily teleological, something that simply follows the colonial, but rather constitutes a complex reordering of social and national identities.4 The Paris Red Belt The very concept of the suburb is a relative one; many urban neighborhoods like London's Chelsea, New York's Greenwich Village, and the Latin Quarter of Paris, that today represent the height of urbanity, were once suburbs . The modern history of Parisian suburbia begins in 1860, with the municipality 's annexation of what are today the outer arrondissements of the city. From that date until World War I various social and economic processes would gradually transform what remained of the department of the Seine from semi-rural retreats to appendages of the nation's capital. A number of factors combined to make the Paris suburbs heavily working-class. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Paris area had developed an important industrial sector, complementing the traditional artisanal workshops of neighborhoods like the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Since the density of Paris's urban fabric offered little room for the largest new factories, and...