Spatial Dynamics and Political Order in Comparative Perspective

APSA Annual meeting, 4 September 2015

France has experienced violent, anti-state riots in the poor suburbs of its cities since the early 1980s. Scholars have attempted to explain the phenomenon by emphasizing socioeconomic or ethnic grievances and political under-representation of minority groups. Beyond these conventional frames, the paper develops a new explanation based on the spatial isolation, concentration and design of the social housing projects, the French grands ensembles. The particular characteristics of these buildings become catalysts for polarization and stigmatization, act as territorial identity markers and convey tactical advantages for this particular type of urban protest. I test the argument using an original dataset that covers the 2005 wave of anti-state riots in France, complemented by evidence from fieldwork in the French suburbs. The existence of a grand ensemble in a locality, often the result of post-War social policy with progressive/modernist aspirations, is shown to generate continuous tensions between inhabitants and the state that occasionally erupt in rioting. The paper further attributes the failure of the French state to respond -through accommodation and repression- to a lack of appreciation of the spatial dynamics of the grands ensembles.