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French urban planning stands in deep contradiction to its dream of wholeness

Jonathan Meades

France optimistically ‘celebrates’ whatever it is that peoples supposedly have in common − a hangover from the Enlightenment

French colonies were founded in the wonderfully immodest proposal that there was no human fate finer than to be a French citizen. Hence the bewildering sight of children in west Africa being taught ‘their’ history: the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre; Ravaillac’s body being eaten by witnesses to his execution; the Sun King’s furniture; Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and so on.

The British Empire entertained no such grandiose notions of achieving linguistic and cultural coherence. It was not in the business of recruiting for the mother country. It did not seek to dissuade Hindus or Zoroastrians of their beliefs. Save in the matters of cricket and business it exhibited a mix of laissez-faire and incuriosity.

In the long half-century since decolonisation was messily effected both countries have continued to cling to their colonial model − at home. France deludes itself that its millions of disaffected north and west African immigrants are on the road to asssimilation as citizens even though many of them are patently travelling in the opposite direction, refusing to shun the veil, demanding single sex swimming pools and halal for all, praying in the street, attacking Jews on behalf of Hamas. Britain, astonishingly, congratulates itself on the fact that in certain London boroughs more than 60 languages are spoken.

It apparently neglects to notice that ‘vibrant diversity’ is merely a euphemism for an elective apartheid which is duly pandered to. Language is the glue of a society, its paramount means of communication. It is, or should be, only secondly a badge of identity, belonging and exclusivity.

Britain ‘celebrates’ differences, presumably considering that they can’t be overcome, so why bother? France optimistically ‘celebrates’ whatever it is that peoples supposedly have in common − a hangover from the Enlightenment whose universal values are indeed universal if France is the universe, as it has often reckoned itself to be. The two approaches − the pragmatic and the idealistic − are so gravely flawed it’s difficult to decide which is dafter. They will end in tears.

‘France may in theory abhor communautarisme and segregation but in practice it candidly acknowledges the gulf between haves and have-nots’

Both are susceptible to architectural representation. Not in the way that, say, a town hall is wilfully representative of a council’s authority or a law court of the judicary’s. Rather, they are giveaways, unwitting witnesses to the ethos of the societies that created them. From the balcony of my office I can see, as much of Marseille can, La Rouvière and Super-Rouvière, an extravagantly XXXXXL development of two blocks which between them house 8,000 persons. The second stands so high on the precipitous foothills of la Marseilleveyre that it occludes the natural horizon. From here, two kilometres away, they look like a fortress. From up there, not much more than five minutes’ drive away, they look like a fortress. At ground level they are blind and mute, and no doubt have olfactory problems too. Welcoming is not the word.

If I go to my wife’s office I can see from that balcony la Résidence Cadenelle, Super Cadenelle and les Jardins de Thalassa. These immense and sybaritic buildings of the ’60s and ’70s are ‘gated’. One could easily never leave the campus: barbers, charcutiers, dry cleaners, bakers, greengrocers … Retailers have a captive audience of prozac’d paranoiacs. Many inhabitants are the dispossessed of Algeria and their descendants − the pieds noirs whom de Gaulle betrayed by treating with militarily defeated terrorists − the same terrorists who went on to turn that tragic country into a sanguinary nightmare. These inhabitants, many of them Jews, fear Arabs, perhaps wrongly since most of them are engaged dealing drugs on the other side of town − think The Wire and then some; 10-year-old kids ‘earning’ €1,000 a week as guetteurs, lookouts. The guards at sites like les Jardins de Thalassa are very definitely not kids. And if they are concierges they belong to the primate chapter of that calling.

So France behaves urbanistically in contradiction of its dream of wholeness. It may in theory abhor communautarisme and segregation but in practice it candidly acknowledges the gulf between haves and have-nots. Britain’s have-nots − floundering without a common language, divided and ruled − seem incapable of achieving the levels of resentment that are easily reached in the banlieue. No doubt they embody the vaunted British attribute of tolerance. Tolerance of oligarchs, of Dubai princelings’ hideous cars, of hedge fund spivs, of grotesque architectural bling.

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