Reading an article recently, I was struck by a particular point. I may now have put down blood red roots into French soil, but I will always remain an immigrant. The whole topic of immigration is one that fascinates me, especially how it has shaped Paris throughout history, and forced the city to evolve and develop, and the article dealt with all these subjects. Taking a look at the integration of a Chinese community and the evolution of an inner-city area, the article, published in the influential Triple Canopy online magazine, was written by local journalist Jules Treneer. I decided to speak to him about the article and talk about the subjects he discussed in more depth.
The article deals ostensibly with the problem of monoactivité, namely the fact that a Chinese immigrant community has purchased a whole series of shop units across several streets in the 11th arrondissement and transformed them into wholesale textile plots. But what exactly is the problem here? In this one square mile area (Sedaine-Popincourt), 600 of the 850 shop units are now Chinese owned, and as Treneer points out, all are garish, with “names reminiscent of cheap perfumes: Lady Belle, Show Girls, Miss Coco”. The City Council and local residents believe this domination has killed community life, and a fight-back based around legislation has begun.
However, as Treneer tells me, monoactivité is not just confined to this sector. The Latin Quarter on the left-bank has seen bars, restaurants and food stores swallowed up by upmarket fashion outlets and art galleries, and banks and financial units have taken over much of the 8th arrondissement, but we rarely hear or read about this side of the problem. Is the action to remove the Chinese from the sector, simply, as Treneer mentions, a case of ‘bourgeois aesthetics’, or is it, as he also suggests, discrimination?
“My interest in writing this article was not necessarily from a perspective of urbanism but rather about how immigrant populations are integrated into France” Treneer told me. We were drinking coffee in the heart of a district that has seen waves of immigrant communities from around the world more or less successfully integrated, but what is different about this situation? During his research on the subject, Treneer was always surprised to see that members of the Chinese community were not given a voice in the French media when the subject was discussed, and it is this lack of dialogue which he believes to be at the heart of the situation.
"There is mutual distrust and a lack of understanding on both sides" he points out. Treneer himself had problems finding people prepared to talk about the subject. The controlling Parti Socialiste on the city council refused to speak to him, and it was also a struggle to find a representative of the notoriously discreet Chinese community. As he points out, “change in France has largely occurred through conflict then agreement, but here there has been neither”. Instead, the 'crime' of the Chinese community has been to not respect the unwritten laws of French society.
In the article, Treneer makes an interesting contrast with the previous dominant group in the area - Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman empire. Although they kept much of their culture, they also immediately adhered to community rules and even signed up to go to war. Contrast this with the Chinese who have successfully created a parallel society of their own, with their own shops, banks, doctors, and funeral parlours. They are the very opposite of a financial burden on the state, but the state does not like to feel unwanted and ignored.
“The successful running of French society hinges on people playing the game and adhering to a system of cultural consensus" Treneer points out. “What you have to remember though” he adds, “is that the French identity and the concept of community were constructed by the state in the 19th century”. For Treneer, this shared identity, imposed by a paternalistic state, is artificial and ultimately unhelpful, leading to increased exclusion. In effect, the Chinese are now being punished simply because their idea of commerce and society does not match the dominant French model.
The French have always tried to limit the power of the market and inject social constraints into the world of commerce. The solution found by the City Council to combat monoactivité has been to use powers of pre-emption on empty units and fill them with carefully chosen tenants, but a question worth asking is whether we can stage manage city life in this manner. Interestingly, Treneer points out that many of the stores that have been chosen have been idyllic units selling organic food and handmade gifts, but not necessarily what people are likely to use on a daily basis. "Are these really economically viable? If they were, would they need this legislation?".
The truth in this particular case is a very cloudy mix. The Sedaine - Popincourt area has never been particularly picturesque and has always been dominated by textile related trades. The business of the Chinese is nothing new here, and as Treneer points out, it is more the large supermarkets that have killed community commerce. Is this then the French state trying to force a group to comply with certain rules? Treneer is an American and more used to a model of integration through work, "if you are law abiding and hard working in the United States you'll be left alone" he points out. So just what is successful integration? The individual adopting the local culture, or the individual being successful within the framework of an adopted state? Personally I'm trying for both!
Read Jules Treneer's full article here.
All photography in this post, except the first picture, published courtesy of Romy Treneer.
Jules Treneer will also be working for the soon to launch Faster Times online journal.