France pays for housing policy failure

Over the past couple of weeks, France has been rocked by riots. This civil unrest, the worst since World War II, has spilled out from the vast estates of social housing on the outskirts of Paris and other major cities.

The underlying reasons for the violence are complex but what is increasingly clear is that social housing policy has played its part.

The slums, which is effectively what they are, surrounding Paris exploded at the end of October. The anger, resentment, boredom and frustration of young men from poor immigrant families had been smouldering for years and it only took a spark to unleash violence. That spark was the deaths of two African Muslim teenagers, Ziad Benna and Bouna Traore. They were electrocuted as they scaled a wall, allegedly trying to evade the police.

In public the reaction of French president Jacques Chirac was tough as he vowed to restore order when the rioting spread around the country, while interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy described the rioters as “rabble” and “yobs” and far right politician Le Pen called for rioters to have their French citizenship withdrawn.

In private conversations it is reported that Chirac deplores the “ghettoisation of youths of African or north African origin”, recognising the “incapacity of French society to fully accept them”.

In France, ethnicity is not measured in the census or in unemployment figures. Joblessness in France is 22.2% for men under 25, but it is over 40% on the housing estates where the rioting began, mainly populated by immigrants and their descendants. Ethnicity and poverty have been major factors leading to the unrest.

But what is also startling is the physical dislocation of the estates those rioting live on. These social housing estates are often closed off from the middle class towns they border, physically cut off by rail lines or main roads. In the 1970s when the high rises were going up, unemployment was about 2% and labour was cheap.

Today these estates are poverty stricken, graffiti-covered, closed communities. They terrify those living in nearby middle class homes. It is now recognised by many experts that social housing policy needs to be integrated, mixed income, mixed tenure. As the UK government embarks on an ambitious house building programme, the experience of what happens when communities are isolated should be borne in mind. rachelblackmoreis external affairsmanager at the Building Societies Association