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Seine-Saint-Denis: France launches plan to rescue its poorest suburb

A view of the town of Saint-Denis, in France's Sein-Saint-Denis department, on 19 October, 2016.
A view of the town of Saint-Denis, in France's Sein-Saint-Denis department, on 19 October, 2016. AFP (File photo)

Seine-Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, has become a symbol in recent years of France’s troubled suburbs, rife with poverty and plagued by inadequate public services. Now the French government is hoping to redress the balance with a raft of new measures, including €10,000 bonuses for civil servants working in the region.

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The bonuses – which will go to civil servants who commit to remaining at least five years in Seine-Saint-Denis – was one of 23 measures unveiled by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Thursday, aimed at solving the “massive and systemic difficulties” in France’s poorest département (administrative district).

Some 150 new police officers will also be recruited and stricter building regulations introduced in an area where substandard housing is a long-standing problem.

As Philippe unveiled the measures in Seine-Saint-Denis itself, he was joined by a host of French government heavyweights, including the country’s interior, education, health and housing ministers. It was a symbol of just how much Seine-Saint-Denis has come to represent wider concerns about inequality in wealth and living standards across France and the pressure the French government has been under to take action.

‘Failing republic’

Seine-Saint-Denis – which spans a number of suburbs north of Paris and is often referred to by its official administrative number, 93 – has been synonymous with inequality and suburban poverty since at least since 2005, when it was the scene of infamous riots that would go on to last three weeks and spread to cities around France. 

Images of burning cars and buildings were broadcast around the world, prompting a national debate on the marginalisation of those in France’s poorest regions, particularly among young people from ethnic minorities in urban areas.

But Seine-Saint-Denis’s problems persisted. More than a quarter (28.6 percent) of its residents live below the poverty line compared to a national average of just below 15 percent while unemployment stood at 11.4 percent as of the last quarter of 2017, compared to 8.6 percent nationally. In 2018, the department had the highest crime rate in metropolitan France.

In May last year, a parliamentary report laid the blame for the region’s problems at the feet of the French government, denouncing what it labeled a “failing republic”.

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In particular, it highlighted the plight of cash-strapped public services in the area, with insufficient staff or resources to fulfill their obligations in key sectors including education and policing. This was in part down to a high turnover in civil servants, while often those who do take up posts in Seine-Saint-Denis are relatively inexperienced, the report said.

In particular, it highlighted the plight of the area’s cash-strapped public services, which struggle to fulfill their obligations with insufficient staff or resources in key sectors, including education and policing. The report attributed this, in part, to high turnover among civil servants, saying often those who do take up posts in Seine-Saint-Denis are relatively inexperienced.

‘The start of a solution’

The government hopes the promise of large bonuses announced by Philippe on Thursday will help remedy this last problem.

“The first priority is to attract and retain the best elements of the civil service for Seine-Saint-Denis,” said the prime minister.

"Finally the start of a solution," François Cornut-Gentille, one of the co-authors of the 2018 report, told AFP Thursday, in response to Philippe’s announcement. "There is still a long road to travel, but Seine-Saint-Denis is catching up [with the rest of France]."

The measures also include a €20 million investment in school infrastructure and a scheme to recruit 500 new teachers.

Along with additional police officers, €30 million will be spent on renovating two Seine-Saint-Denis police stations.

And to address problems with the quality of housing in the area – where it is estimated around 10 percent of homes are sub-standard – five new housing inspectors will be recruited.

‘Not nearly enough’

Elisabeth Belin, deputy mayor responsible for health in Saint-Denis, a town within Seine-Saint-Denis, said the housing measures would help improve overall health standards for residents.

“The question of unsanitary housing is a real issue here. It’s clear that the people in the most precarious situations and with the worse health live in sub-standard housing,” she told FRANCE 24.

But others are sceptical that the measures unveiled by Philippe will make a significant difference after the years of underinvestment and neglect that have plagued Seine-Saint-Denis’s public services.

“It’s not nearly enough,” Jérémy Mounier, a high-school teacher from Seine-Saint-Denis and member of the local SUD Education 93 union.

“Three years ago we launched a campaign where we estimated that 10 billion euros of investment was needed across all public services in Seine-Saint-Denis,” he told FRANCE 24.

“For me, these measures are just putting a bandage on the problem.”

 

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