From Thu Nov 14 06:30:06 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Fenced off in France
Date: Thu, 14 Nov 2002 11:58:24 +0100 (CET)

Price to pay for ‘island of privilege’: fenced off in France

By Hacène Belmssous, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2002

In France, and in Britain, too, there is a new segregation of the urban landscape, through the building of American-style gated communities which sells the haves security against the have-nots, creating us-and-them cities. We visited one such gated community in the boom city of Toulouse

THE Belles Fontaines estate outside Toulouse, in southwest France, belongs to Fonta, a property developer that has 21 other estates in the area. The outside of Belles Fontaines looks impenetrable, with a perimeter fence, remote-controlled gate, security staff and surveillance cameras. Tenants can watch visitors on their screens and identify anyone undesirable. To enter the estate you either need a special badge, or an invitation from an occupant.

Belles Fontaines was built in 2000 in a residential area only five minutes from the last stop on the underground line; it has detached houses and three two-storey blocks of flats. Once inside it looks very much like other French estates, with tidy lawns and houses laid out around a central swimming pool. Only a few hundred yards down the road, though, is the Mirail low-income housing estate (1) with its high-rise blocks. But people living at Belles Fontaines avoid any contact with their neighbours; they shop at the Carrefour hypermarket, rather than the Géant store, just as close, simply because the Géant is frequented by people from Mirail. An executive living at Belles Fontaines explains: It's an us and them situation. The two communities just do not mix.

In the last 15 years the social makeup of Toulouse's population has significantly changed. Unlike most of the country, but like Montpelier, the town has enjoyed rapid growth (1.53% annual growth in Toulouse in 1990-97, against 0.37% for the rest of mainland France). In 1982-1999 its population increased by 227,350 (2). But growth has been uneven. Jobs for industrial and agricultural workers and self-employed contractors have disappeared at the rate of 7,000 per year, compared with an annual increase in executive jobs of 13,000. This change has created a new urban elite, mostly families with children, or young childless couples.

In Toulouse, fear of the Other and a feeling of acute insecurity have resulted in many gated developments and there are now about 20 in the urban area. Their main developer, Monné-Ducroix, operates about 5,500 flats, 90% of which are rented. Business is booming, with 1,750 homes sold last year and another 1,400 constructed. The company turned over $195m in 2001 ($150m in 2000). It is doing so well that three leading French banks, BNP Paribas, Crédit Mutuel and Crédit Agricole, have bought shares.

Robert Monné, its CEO, is a clever man, who knows that urban violence (3) has boosted the value of his company. Established property developers have offered to set up joint ventures, so far without success. The Monné-Ducroix web site sells the promise of a quiet life to prosperous customers. People want to live in a well-ordered place with plenty of fresh air, where they won't be scared every time the door bell rings, Monné says. He realises that French society is increasingly open to American influence, but that middle-class people are still reluctant to admit to living in a fortress.

Asked how important security is on his estates, he carefully avoids upsetting anyone, saying Our tenants like living in a friendly atmosphere, and he backs this line with an irrefutable argument: No one has the resources to protect a whole neighbourhood. To do that you need police in front of every block.

The Durands (4) moved into a rented Monné-Decroix flat in July 2000: she is an intern in a Toulouse hospital, he is an engineer. They have two children, aged four months and two years. Mrs Durand says: We decided to rent this three-bedroom flat because we can leave the children to play outside without watching them. There is no need for a fence or a wall. But their peace of mind has drawbacks. Friends cannot just turn up without warning. We need to be here to let them into the estate. Parking space is restricted and allocated to each tenant, so they cannot always park their cars. There is no quibbling with the rules. They are the price for a comfortable, tranquil life. We live in an island of privilege, says Mrs Durand.

Opting out of urban life

French society is changing, with a growing rift between underprivileged masses surviving on welfare (supplementary benefit, job creation schemes) and a prosperous, highly qualified minority. The proliferation of gated communities in France (5) is an illustration of this. French towns have traditionally been the scene of social interaction, with different classes and communities co-existing. But segregation is increasingly common. France's gated communities are pursuing an urban ideal, similar to those in the US, in which people choose to live with others as fortunate as themselves. Toulouse's engineers, scientists, barristers, architects and journalists are opting out of urban life to be among equals and leave public spaces to the poor that they fear.

Insecurity is really an excuse for segregation. And the main reason why those with advantages prefer to shun the less fortunate is the global economy. It has changed the rules of social interaction, vaunting the merits of global, rather than local, exchange and networked, rather than neighbourhood, relations. Public life brings people from different backgrounds into contact, in the street, in sports clubs, or at school. But gated communities, home to the privileged few, reduce the scope for such interaction.

Consider the example of a couple in their forties: they are both in middle management and they used to live in a working-class district of Paris but used the opportunity of a recent promotion to move to Toulouse and buy a house in a gated community. They said: Even if we still vote for the Communist party and are against the idea of social segregation, we want to live somewhere quiet.

The media have played an important part in this trend. Television news often shows cars burning and the police pelted with bottles and stones, and always against the same backdrop, a low-income housing estate, its walls daubed with graffiti. The immigrant youths are always the same, too, and always filmed in a certain kind of action by journalists under police protection. The media knack for turning real events into spectacle, supported by deliberately incomplete information, has curtailed any real political debate about the issue in France.

Worse, politicians in national and local government have encouraged the spread of gated communities. After building 22 estates in the Toulouse area Monné-Ducroix is extending its operations to Tours (two estates), Avignon (three), Nantes (three), Montpellier (four), Lyon (three), Marseille (one) and Bordeaux (three), and it has projects in the Paris area. Monné explains: We did approach some councils, but others came looking for us. Local authorities across the political spectrum are involved, and, in fact, most of the councils where we have located estates are on the left, Monné says.

After 30 years of unsuccessful attempts to solve the problems of the vast housing estates built during the 1960s, the French government has opted to encourage segregation. To win middle class support, Lionel Jospin's socialist government agreed to allow the installation of surveillance systems in public places. In 1997-99 201 local councils set up closed-circuit cameras to monitor city streets.

The government also introduced tax cuts that mostly benefited the upper middle classes. A study by the French Centre for Economic Trends shows that half of the $12bn savings made from cuts in income tax and VAT went the top 25% of households. The budget announced this September by the more rightwing government, led by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, promises a big increase in funding for the police and a further cut in income tax, again largely for high earners.

So the trend towards gated communities and security services will not go away, especially now that one of the nation's top banks, BNP Paribas, is involved. According to Jacques Guinault, the director of BNP Protection Habitat (6), there is nothing surprising in this move: The French market for security products and services is expanding, but it is still small and badly organised. Our business is the security of people's possessions. It seems reasonable that we should give consumers the benefit of our knowhow. Bank customers can sign up for an alarm system and remote surveillance service protecting their home round the clock.

BNP Protection Habitat started trading in September 1998 and it is thriving. In 2001 it turned over $3.3m, with 12,500 homes subscribing to its services. BNP Paribas is not the only bank showing an interest in this market, which is underdeveloped in the country. Only 1% of French households have as yet fitted a remote surveillance system.


(1) The estate took the brunt of the explosion that wrecked the AZF-Total chemical works in Toulouse in September 2001.

(2) Toulouse also has a remarkably large number of strategic jobs (10.68% in 1990) in public research, industrial research and information technology. Only the Paris area has a higher proportion of such jobs (14.73%), which demand high qualifications and play an essential part in the economic development of an urban area.

(3) See Stephane Beaud and Michel Pialoux The children of hatred, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, July 2001.

(4) These are not their real names.

(5) See Pascal Vigneux, GOFAR.

(6) This joint venture owned by a bank, BNP Paribas, and Axa, an insurance company, specialises in secure housing.