Exile in my neighborhood

A disused high school is occupied by migrants. A sociologist studies the resonances on the life of the neighborhood. If the defense of exiles is a source of new links, their presence is also a source of tensions.

Summer 2015, north-east of Paris, XIXe arrondissement. In the heart of the Place des Fêtes, the disused Jean-Quarré high school is occupied by exiled populations who have no other place to live. Begun on July 31 with around 150 exiles, the occupation quickly grew to reach 1,400 migrants on October 23, the day of the evacuation. These three months of occupation constitute a cycle that is now commonplace for the exiles, the activists and associations who come to their aid, as well as for the journalists and researchers who observe them: settling in, organizing common areas and sleeping arrangements, setting up daily life, tensions with local residents, emerging solidarity, French lessons, donations of food and clothing, wanderings in institutions, etc. then the time of the evacuation, the dispersal of the inhabitants and the return to the street.

Isabelle Coutant, sociologist and resident of the neighborhood, retraces the event here based on an ethnographic survey started during the occupation and continued until the winter of 2016. The migrants left and the sociologist stayed to interview the actors and understand what the event did to the neighborhood and its residents. Beyond the occupation itself, she thus questions its resonances in the life of the neighborhood and the traces in the biographies of the residents. The reception of exiled populations on French territory is then placed in the daily life of a neighborhood and in the stories of its occupants.

The choir of the Place des Fêtes

Throughout the story, the author seeks to reconstruct the space of points of view and experiences surrounding the occupation of the Jean-Quarré high school. The Place des Fêtes is gradually embodied through a gallery of portraits that intertwine the trajectories and destinies of the inhabitants, migrants and activists. The author takes us into the occupied high school, into the towers as well as into the neighboring college.

The bumpy paths of the oldest residents of the tower are an opportunity to grasp what the daily fears of the most hostile neighbors are made of. There since the 1970s, they seem disturbed and weakened by the fear of downgrading, the renewal of the inhabitants, the multicultural dimension of the new families and the transformation of lifestyles.

This is the case of M.me Durand, 84 years old. When she tells the story of the neighborhood and the successive arrivals, she seems to regret the time that has passed and considers that the most recent arrivals “do not want to integrate”. Her rejection focuses on Islam, the wearing of the veil by the young girls of the neighborhood or the imam who came to the high school one Friday to celebrate a prayer. She emphasizes that he did not speak French. For Ludmila too, 60 years old and a political refugee who arrived from Russia in 1977, the occupation of the high school is difficult to live with. A feminist, she says she is shocked to see women taking care of the cleaning and the trash of the occupied place. She goes on to confide her fears of a “replacement” of the European population by the new immigrants, while emphasizing that her husband is Moroccan, a practicing Muslim, and that she gets on well with other “normal” neighbors. However, neither of them voted for the National Front.

Myriam, 60, and Valérie, 40, are involved in the Solidarité migrants group. Residents of the neighborhood, respectively a public writer and a screenwriter, their family trajectories seem favorable to helping exiles. Myriam is the granddaughter of Jews from Thessaloniki who arrived in France in 1918 and died in Auschwitz in 1942 and was raised by her stepfather, a Spanish republican. Valérie is the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. Both speak English well, an important asset allowing them to establish direct contact with migrants.

The plurality of points of view is rendered without dogmatism and in its complexity, the nuances appear and gradually draw distinct social representations of otherness. Without limiting herself to a binary opposition between the “for” and the “against”, the author evokes the tensions between residents. Neighbors and supporters of the exiles confront each other on the subject of garbage management, nighttime noise or fights that break out near the high school. Disagreements also appear between supporters of the exiles, replaying at the Jean-Quarré high school recurring fractures in the activist and associative environment between a more political reading and a more humanitarian approach to helping refugees.

Among the youngest, the middle school students, daily spectators of the event and themselves often children of immigrants, the diversity of points of view is also felt and echoes their family histories. All the more so when migrants – Khaled, Bilal and Farouk – enter the middle school to meet them, invited into the classes by committed teachers.

It is little by little the choir of the Place des Fêtes that resonates, the choir of its actors, among whom the presence of women imposes itself on the reading. Usually overrepresented within the associations of social action or humanitarian aid, residents often present at home (housewives, independents and intellectual professions working at home), or mothers of the young people of the neighborhood gathered in the association “Mères en place”, all are there and also hold (to) the life of the neighborhood.

Exile and city

The neighborhood is also a central character in the book and the short story of the occupation of the high school is intertwined with the older history of the Place des Fêtes. Since the 1970s, residents have been demanding the construction of community facilities and in 2014, when Anne Hidalgo was elected mayor of Paris, they obtained a media library project as part of the “Réinventons nos places” plan. The 2015 occupation, tolerated by the city hall, and then the transformation of the high school into an emergency shelter, call into question these neighborhood development projects. The cause of the refugees and the cause of the neighborhood thus enter into competition and it is a feeling of disillusionment that seems to dominate among the residents. They feel abandoned and weakened once again, while the neighborhood already hosts integration housing and a shelter for the precarious created a few years earlier.

Place des Fêtes remains a working-class neighborhood, which is partially resisting the gentrification process, where part of the population – in a situation of social decline and aging – coexists with more recently settled residents, more often executives or higher intellectual professions. The successive layers of immigration, the exiles of yesterday, give the square a cosmopolitan air reinforced by recent arrivals and the occupation of the high school by today’s exiles.

The long history of the Place des Fêtes also allows us to better understand the observed mobilization. The portraits show that local involvement in neighborhood struggles as well as the accumulation of a capital of “neighborhood” autochthony are conducive to engagement in this new collective that is formed around the exiles. The mobilization does not arise from nowhere but (re)activates neighborhood ties, proximity or parents of students for example. This is the case of Myriam, involved in the life of the neighborhood and engaged for 20 years in the Amicale des locataires or of Valérie, activist of RESFIsabelle Coutant shows that it is also gentrification that promotes the visibility of mobilizations of foreigners when they take place in urban space: the socio-demographic characteristics of gentrifiers are conducive to commitment to migrants and participate daily in the forms of solidarity and activism that are expressed in the neighborhood and the occupied high school.

Sociologist and sociology facing current events

In this story, Isabelle Coutant uses the “I” to talk about herself and share with readers her personal situation within the event she is experiencing and studying. The author inhabits the place and in turn becomes a character in the story. We follow her through the ethnography, her wanderings and encounters. She reports on her gaze as it is being formed. We read her hesitations, her doubts, her worries as well as her constant concern for objectification.

As a researcher, she feels destabilized and carried away from her initial questions by the dramatic situation she is watching. Immersed among hundreds of men, improvising French lessons or translating documents, she talks about her position as a woman, the attempts at seduction, the questions about her family. “I have never felt so much like a woman in a field,” she emphasizes. Mother of a middle school student facing the occupied high school, she finds herself torn on the first day of school between her interest in the event, her desire to enter the high school and the fears expressed by her son that same evening. In the family sphere, social representations of the foreigner are replayed: he fears these older men who may have become violent, she tells a story published by a volunteer on Facebook. During a French class, an exile asked her how to translate “I love France”. Little by little, her experiences as a resident, a woman, a mother and a researcher intertwine in the confrontation with the event, this new object of research takes shape in her daily life and imposes itself on her.

This story is also an opportunity to question in depth the place of sociology and its practices in the face of any event. The role of the work is multiple: it analyzes the occupation of the Jean-Quarré high school as much as it tells the story and thus the memory. By questioning its traces, the sociologist participates in making the event: she names it, describes it, contextualizes it, reveals it to readers as well as to the inhabitants themselves. We see through this work of investigation to what extent sociology, a social science of the present time, can also participate in the construction and writing of a memory and a history being played out before the observer. This is then the role of sociology in the city: to listen, hear, restore and show.

Among the many works published on the occasion of the “refugee crisis”, Migrants at the bottom of the house offers readers a fine story, full of presences and information gleaned over the course of meetings and conversations. Dotted with a small number of bibliographical references, the book is both accessible to the general public and deeply rooted in the social sciences. If international migration and the reception of exiles are issues that can sometimes seem very distant – both geographically and socially – they take shape here through a close experience. The book questions the cohabitation between exiles and inhabitants of a neighborhood by embodying it on a local and intimate scale: the exiles are placed back in the city and are resituated in an older popular and migratory history.