If someone from any part of the world is asked to name the most important cities
on the planet, New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo always top the list. These
"global cities" achieve this feat through excelling in areas including
aggregation of human capital, business activity, infrastructure and cultural
experience. Additionally, a multicultural population can be an important
element in determining whether or not a city should indeed be considered
"global." Immigrants that make up a multicultural population contribute
significantly to the economic and infrastructural operations of a city, for
better and for worse. Furthermore, they bring different cultural norms to the
surface in what can otherwise be culturally homogenous cities. Paris, for instance, has a
significant immigrant population: according to the French National Institute of
Statistics and Economics Studies (INSEE), 20% of Paris's population are immigrants and 41.3% of people under twenty have at least one
immigrant parent. Despite these numbers, immigrant experiences are
seldom comparable to those of the native population. One example of this
disparity in life experiences can be seen in cultural productions such as rap music, which
serve as empowering acts of resistance for French immigrants. This article will
explore the roles immigrants play in making Paris a global city, detail how the
economic, cultural and infrastructural experiences of immigrants are so
markedly disparate from those of native Parisians, and explain how acts of resistance
can bind these two communities together.
economic performance of immigrants is different from that of the businesses
operating in La Défense, Paris’s impressive business district, yet is equally
important to Paris’s role as a global economic power center. While the outward
differences between the economic realities of a poor immigrant from West Africa
and a native day trader working at Euronext Paris is immense, these two figures
are crucially linked in the life of the great city. In The Global City, Saskia Sassen notes that "… a vast supply of
low-wage jobs is required by high-income gentrification in both its residential
and commercial settings. Furthermore, there is a continuing need for low-wage
industrial services, even in such sectors as finance and specialized services"
(Sassen, 1991). She also observes that immigrants are crucial to the success of
those in highly developed service sectors, both in their professional and
personal lives: "Immigration can be seen as providing labor for the low-wage
service and manufacturing jobs that service both the expanding, highly
specialized service sector and the high-income lifestyles of those employed in
the specialized, expanding service sector" (Sassen, 1991). Yet while these two societal
positions — the poor immigrant and the elite native — are inextricably linked,
their working conditions are far from comparable.
a story published in 2009 by France24 International News — one of France’s most
widely viewed news channels — illegal immigrants who work in the Paris metro
were interviewed about their working conditions. The author of the article
notes that images gathered while researching the article "… show the workers
removing concrete slabs from the station platform, and then resurfacing the
ground with boiling tarmac. Bare armed, gloveless, without masks, without
helmets." Sekou, a 35 year old man from
Mali, has been working in the metro since 2006. He states that "if there's an
accident, it's the responsibility of the worker" (France24, 2009). As for how
his immigration status affects his economic opportunities, he says that "[o]ur
employers know that we're undocumented — they take advantage of it by paying us
70 or 80 euros a night" (France24, 2009). Because of the demand for this kind
of labor, employers prize undocumented workers who can be paid off the books,
saving money. Saskia Sassen writes about this practice in The Global City. She corroborates the testimony of the workers in
the Paris metro: "There is also evidence pointing to an expansion of the
underground economy. Of interest to the analysis here is one particular
component of the underground economy, informal work. This encompasses work that
is basically licit but takes place outside the regulatory apparatus covering zoning,
taxes, health and safety, minimum wage laws, and other types of standards"
(Sassen, 1991). These types of jobs can be dangerous for immigrants who have no
representation, rights, or legal recourse for worker’s compensation or from
employers taking advantage of immigrants working in unregulated positions.
there are undoubtedly concerns for immigrants who are working in Paris, those
who have found employment are the lucky ones: many others have no economic
opportunities at all. City mayors estimated migrant unemployment in Paris at
approximately 40% in 2007, 30% higher than the French national average. Reasons
for this discrepancy vary from difficulties of cultural integration to a
language barrier to lack of access to education. Importantly, the high rate of
unemployment among immigrants is perhaps a factor that drives people into
taking dangerous or degrading work. To have a job of any kind is to be moving
toward success in Parisian immigrant communities.
infrastructure is a significant component that makes Paris a global city.
Access to public transportation is crucial to a major, global city, and Paris
has excelled in this category for generations. According to the Statistiques
Syndicat des Transports d'Île-de-France, the Parisian municipal transportation
agency, in 2005, Paris was the second busiest metro system in Europe after that
in Moscow. The Paris system carries 4.5 million passengers a day and an annual
total of 1.479 billion passengers. While the system is praised as one of the
densest, most accessible, and most efficient in the world, very few of the
metro lines run to the suburbs where most of Paris’s immigrants live.
Immigrants who rely on public transportation are generally bus passengers. The
bus system in Paris proper is considered to be a proficient system with 214 bus
lines currently operating in the banlieues,
or immigrant neighborhoods surrounding the inner core of Paris (RATP). While these numbers look good on
paper, RATP has garnered many complaints about the infrequency of the banlieue routes, long waiting times at
stops, and, perhaps most crucially, the fact that the buses to and from the banlieues do not run at night. Many
immigrants who work night jobs struggle to commute from work to home between
the hours of approximately 7:00 pm and 7:00 am.
facilities in Paris - such as parks, libraries, and post offices - are located
throughout the center of the city and are kept in good condition, but those in
immigrant neighborhoods are either completely lacking or are not
well-maintained. Football is popular among immigrant youth, just like among
youth in Paris proper. However, in the banlieues,
one will not find the well-manicured fields outfitted with equipment that
non-immigrant Parisians enjoy. A public football field in the banlieues, for example, is frequently a
simple dirt field often littered with trash or broken glass. Because of the low
standards of facilities in these communities, immigrant youths’ experiences are
substandard not only in school and in work but also in leisure.
is perhaps the most important aspect of infrastructure. In Paris generally,
housing is expensive, difficult to obtain, and well-maintained due to the high
expectations residents have of living in a global city. While there are
certainly problems with every city’s housing, Parisians generally can expect to
have their homes meet building and fire codes, to have repairs conducted in a
timely manner, and to live in a residence suitable
for their family’s needs in space and quality. For immigrants in the Parisian
suburbs however, it is quite a different story. Many immigrants live in large
public housing facilities that were erected in the 1970’s; many of these
structures have not been kept up to date since then, often lacking basics
including emergency exits or smoke detectors. Much attention was drawn to the
poor quality of housing during the banlieue
riots of 2005 that drew worldwide attention to France as the government
declared a state of emergency. In a report published by the group City Mayors,
the United Nations Habitat division reported that:
Between April and
September 2005, three fires ravaged residential buildings in Paris, killing
forty-eight African immigrants, primarily from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
Most of the victims were children; many were undocumented. The immigrants lived
in cheap hotels and apartment houses ill-equipped for emergencies, lacking
smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, emergency exits, and, in one case, even
running water with which to put out the blaze. Some of the families had been
placed in the substandard accommodations by social service agencies while
waiting for their residency papers to be processed. Others entered the
tenements on their own, squatting in the only shelter they could find (United
Nations Habitat, 56).
the riots exposed extreme levels of destruction, the dereliction of immigrant
housing is not uncommon. Both documented and undocumented immigrants are forced
into areas far outside the "global city" of Paris because of high prices in
Paris proper, a desire to live in a community that shares cultural practices of
their country of origin, or, in the case of undocumented migrants, inability to
formally rent a place to live.
immensely important aspect regarding the French immigrant experience is that of
culture. Immigrant culture in Paris, while quite distinct from the mainstream
Parisian culture, is gaining traction. One of the main themes of the culture of
immigrants in Paris is a type of identity crisis. While these people live and
work in Paris (some were even born in Paris), they believe they are not
considered French by those outside their communities. In her 2011 book European Others, Fatima El-Fayeb
describes this difficult feeling that many French immigrants have expressed:
To say that we are French means a lot
of different things; it’s almost like saying that we are Christian, almost,
because most of the time, French people are Christian. Maybe on the outside
we’re French and on the inside we’re Arab. But really, our problem is that our
parents are immigrants, and when we go to Algeria, we’re still immigrant. So, we’re
somewhere in the middle (110).
rap music has become an intensely popular medium through which immigrants have
expressed their frustrations with life in the margins of Paris. On the subject
of the rise and inspirations of French immigrant rap, M.C. Hamé, an immigrant
and rapper who has lived in Paris for nearly his entire life, recalls:
When we were teenagers, to see black
American artists erupt in our world, like NWA, Run DMC, with their attitudes,
with a certain pride, defying white racist America, reclaiming their history,
their pride, it was earth shattering to us. For the first time, people who
looked like us, speaking freely… it was like being branded with a red-hot iron. We
still haven’t gotten over it (143.)
Youssoupha Mabiki, better known as simply
Youssoupha, is a French rapper of Congolese origin who has acheived popularity
and success in France since his debut album in 2007. His most recent single
"Histoires Vraies" — True Histories — details his life and experiences in the banlieues:
Yeah, je raconte les épreuves
Les rêveurs incompris
Les misères, les hivers, les petits
frères en son-pri
Les décès, les écoles, les excès des
Les machines, les racines de Martin et
Malcom… (Mabiki, 2011).
English Translation (translated by author):
I know it
Yeah, I tell of tests performed
The misunderstood dreamers
Miseries, winters, little brothers in prison
Deaths, schools, alcohol abuses,
Machines, the roots of Martin and Malcolm…
this excerpt from the song, Youssoupha shows an example of French rappers using
this music genre to express not only their frustrations and realities but their
hopes and experiences. He also points to two important figures in the American
civil rights movement, which does not have an equivalent in France. Because
there are few black faces in the public sphere in France, rappers make American
figures their own, using them as examples of resistance and change for the
French marginalized communities.
European Others, El-Fayeb writes
about French rapper Axiom First and his controversial 2005 single, "Monsieur Le
President," which was written about the 2005 riots in the banlieues and the French government’s reaction to them. She says
that he succeeds by "placing the events in the context of the histories of
colonization and labor migration, structural exclusion, economic inequality,
and everyday racism in contemporary France, while emphatically claiming his
status as part of French society. He does this not only by invoking the service
of French colonial subjects in defending and rebuilding the nation, but also by
stylistically referencing writers such as Victor Hugo, placing himself within a
long tradition of French intellectuals’ resistance against abuse of state
power" (141). Axiom First’s song may have been the inspiration for the 2012
single released by French-Haitian rapper Kery James. Released in the midst of
the French presidential election, it seems that James did not seek to be very
subtle with the meaning of his song "Lettre à la Republique." The song opens
with the following verse:
tous ces racistes à la tolérance hypocrite
Qui ont bâti leur nation sur le sang
Maintenant s'érigent en donneurs de leçons
Pilleurs de richesses, tueurs d'africains
Ce passé colonial c'est le votre
C'est vous qui avez choisi de lier votre histoire à la notre… (James, 2012)
addresses the "builders of riches, killers of Africans, colonizers, and
torturers of Algerians" and says that "the colonial past is yours; it is you
who have chosen to link your history to ours." The obvious contrast between
immigrant rap of this variety and traditional French cultural productions such
as the Paris Ballet draws attention yet again to the sharp divide between the
experiences of Paris’s mainstream, traditional residents and immigrants who
remain on the fringe. Yet French immigrant rap music has proven a viable form
of resistance and empowerment for otherwise marginalized groups of society.
global city is a product of its economic, cultural, and infrastructural
qualities; cities that have high achievements in these areas consistently are
ranked amongst the most important cities in the world. While these achievements
are certainly monumental, it is crucially important to understand that not all
the residents of these global cities experience the opportunities and have
access to the facilities that grant these cities their exalted status. In
Paris, specifically, immigrants work in low-wage service jobs that ease the
operations of the entire city. Despite the importance of these jobs, the
workers are often underpaid and overworked without access to benefits. The most
famous cultural institutions of Paris, including museums and high fashion, are
not accessible to immigrants.
immigrant culture is gaining traction outside the margins of French society
through the growing popularity of Muslim and/or African rap artists, the
Parisian immigrants have a completely different cultural experience than their
native counterparts. The infrastructure of Paris’s banlieues is a stark contrast to that of Paris proper. While
residents of the latter live in appropriate housing and among well-maintained
public facilities, immigrants are often forced into housing that is unsafe,
unsanitary, and unfit for human beings to live in. The immigrant population of
Paris is significant and with all that the third-ranked global city in the
world has to offer, this currently marginalized portion of the population could
help Paris grow both economically and culturally if its vast and untapped
potential could be accepted as a central part of being French, creating an even
more stunning metropolis on the banks of the Seine.
El-Tayeb, Fatima. (2011).
European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis: University of
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French National Institute for Statistics and Economic
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James, Kery. (2012).
"Lettre à la Republique". 92.2012.
Mabiki, Youssoupha. (2012).
"Histoires Vraies". Noir désir. McKenzie, A.D. "Migrant
Women Trapped in Sex Trade". Inter Press Service News Agency. Accessed on November 19,
Site de RATP. Accessed on
November 26, 2012.
Sassen, Saskia. (1991). The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.
New Jersey: PrincetonUniversity Press.
Site official de l’EPAD.
Accessed on November 11, 2012.
Statistiques Syndicat des
transports d'Île-de-France. Accessed on November 26, 2012.