The Rise of the Paris Red Belt

The Rise of the Paris Red Belt

by Tyler Stovall


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From 1920 until the present, the working-class suburbs of Paris, known as the Red Belt, have constituted the heart of French Communism, providing the Party not only with its most solid electoral base but with much of its cultural identity as well. Focusing on the northeastern suburb of Bobigny, Stovall explores the nature of working-class life and politicization as he skillfully documents how this unique region and political culture came into being. The Rise of the Paris Red Belt reveals that the very process of urban development in metropolitan Paris and the suburbs provided the most important opportunities for the local establishment of Communist influence.

The rapid increase in Paris' suburban population during the early twentieth century outstripped the development of the local urban infrastructure. Consequently, many of these suburbs, often represented to their new residents as charming country villages, soon degenerated into suburban slums. Stovall argues that Communists forged a powerful political block by mobilizing the disillusionment and by improving some of the worst aspects of suburban life.

As a social history of twentieth-century France, The Rise of the Paris Red Belt calls into question traditional assumptions about the history of both French Communism and the French working-class. It suggests that those interested in working-class politics, especially in the twentieth century, should consider the significance of residential and consumer issues as well as those relating to the workplace. It also suggests that urban history and urban development should not be considered autonomous phenomena, but rather expressions of class relations. The Rise of the Paris Red Belt brings to life a world whose citizens, though often overlooked, are nonetheless the history of modern France.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520063204
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/17/1990
Pages: 265
Product dimensions: 6.28(w) x 9.29(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Tyler Stovall is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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The Rise of the Paris Red Belt

By Tyler Stovall

University of California Press

Copyright © 1990 Tyler Stovall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-06320-1

Chapter One

The Suburbanization of the Paris Region A casual visitor to Bobigny would have noticed little that distinguished the community from any of the other villages that dotted the countryside of the Ile-de-France at the turn of the century. Our hypothetical visitor-probably a Parisian who had come to Bobigny on a Sunday to escape briefly the oppressive urbanity of the capital-would have observed a small town center of a few blocks around the place Carnot, consisting of small, solid two-story houses separated by rutted, poorly paved streets. Dominating the place Carnot was the church of the parish of Bobigny, an unadorned structure barely thirty years old. Extending away from the church in all directions were little more than "vast blackish-colored fields slowly worked by a silent 'gardener,' pushing his plow yoked to a Percheron." Nothing suggested the integration of the community into what is today referred to as the agglomération parisienne. Although Bobigny is located just ten kilometers from the towers of Notre Dame, in 1900 Paris seemed far away.

Yet by the turn of the century such a view was more than a little illusory; Paris was getting closer all the time. Adjacent communities that lay nearer to Paris, such as Aubervilliers and Pantin, had already lost much of their rural character and been transformed into working-class industrial suburbs. Bobigny could no longer realistically claim to be a small provincial village. For centuries its agriculture had been integrated into the capital's food market; the "silent gardener" described by père Lhande might well have spent that morning hawking vegetables or melons at the central marketplace of Paris, Les Halles. Abbé Jules Ferret, who as parish priest of Bobigny at the turn of the century was well placed to record the changes in his community, observed that the market gardeners of Bobigny had little desire for increased contacts with Paris or Parisians. Unfortunately for Balbynians who held this attitude, the Parisians were not so standoffish: more and more of them were coming to the small community to spend time in "the country." By 1900 Bobigny was firmly established as a recreational exurb. And soon weekending Parisians would be followed by many others who saw in Bobigny not merely a pleasant pastoral refuge but a place to live as well.

Thus Bobigny in 1900, on the eve of a rapid process of urbanization, was a society whose integration into the fast-expanding metropolitan area of Paris was already well established. In taking a more detailed look at turn-of-the-century Bobigny, we do well to keep in mind that the community was in transition.

Even though many Parisians visited Bobigny on weekends, it was by no means a spot of great natural beauty. Its dominant physical characteristic was homogeneity. Lying in the middle of the Aubervilliers plain, Bobigny was almost perfectly flat and regular; not a single hill rose within the town's boundaries. In fact, it had no distinguishing physical hallmarks other than the small stream in the western part of the community known as the its rû de Montfort. No physical boundaries separated Bobigny from its neighbors to the north, east, and west; it was bordered on the south by the unsightly canal de l'Ourcq. Nothing remained of the almost legendary forest of Bondy that, at the eastern edge of the city, had provided a haunt for brigands in earlier centuries. Then as now the legal territory of Bobigny consisted of 671 hectares; yet in 1900 most of this area was uninhabited. The local open-field farmers (cultivateurs) lived in the center of town, which included no more than thirty-five hectares of the total with only five paved streets. The rest of Bobigny consisted of their farms. The town's public institutions-the church, the city hall, the post office, and a boys' and a girls' primary school-were located in the city center. Here too clustered most of the few cafés, bakeries, and other small shops that served the needs of the local populace. One indication of the beginnings of the urbanization of Bobigny comes when we examine the outlying areas of the community in greater detail (Map 1). The sharp division between housing and agricultural land of a half century earlier had begun to blur, as in the southwestern part of the town, the Blanc-mesnil quarter. This area was inhabited mostly by market gardeners (maraîchers), who specialized in growing fruits and vegetables for the Paris produce markets. Unlike the open-field farmers, their more established neighbors, the market gardeners usually built their houses next to their plots of land and away from one another. The Blanc-mesnil quarter was thus neatly divided into small fields surrounded by low walls. Next to each plot stood the residence of the market gardener who owned it: generally a modest one- or two-story structure isolated from its neighbors.

To the north of the Blanc-mesnil quarter, in northwestern Bobigny, lay La Courneuve, one of the most traditional areas of town in 1900, composed mostly of farmers' fields with few houses. Yet even here the presence of Paris could be felt, for in the southwestern corner of La Courneuve lay the greater part of the Parisian cemetery of Pantin-Bobigny. For decades the city of Paris had resorted to the practice of locating various unhealthy, noxious, and land-intensive municipal establishments outside the city's borders, in the suburbs of the Department of the Seine. The opening of the cemetery in 1884 (over the strident protests of the Bobigny city council) marked Bobigny's first experience of this practice, and thus a new stage in the suburbanization of the community. Paris was already sending its dead to Bobigny; the living would soon follow. To the south of the town's center, between it and the adjoining suburbs of Romainville and Noisy-le-Sec, extended the Limites area. Sliced up by railway lines and hemmed in by the canal de l'Ourcq, Limites was one of the more isolated neighborhoods of Bobigny. Yet the canal and the adjoining National Route no. 3 made it the section most integrated into the Paris area. Most important, it was the only section of Bobigny that had any industry. The canal de l'Ourcq, beginning in the industrialized nineteenth arrondissement of Paris and passing through Pantin before reaching Bobigny, was one of the great commercial highways of the Parisian basin. Largely because of its influence, the Limites neighborhood had a lubricants factory, a glue factory, a woodworking shop, and a harnessmaker. Resembling suburbs like Saint-Denis or Aubervilliers more than the rest of Bobigny, Limites exemplified the crucial role of transportation in industrializing the suburbs of Paris. Throughout our period, the Limites area remained the most industrialized section of Bobigny. Industrialization had little impact on other sections of the town until after the Second World War, although some important industrial development occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Therefore the area that best symbolized the new, suburban, Bobigny of the interwar years was not the Limites neighborhood but the Pont de Bondy, which lay on the town's eastern fringes. It was not a neighborhood in 1900, since nobody lived there; like La Courneuve, the Pont de Bondy consisted of farmers' fields. Located farthest from Paris, the Pont de Bondy seemed so remote and unimportant that most city maps of the period did not even show it. And yet it was this area, untouched by the first stage of Bobigny's integration into the Paris area, that was transformed by the second stage of change, which made Bobigny into a working-class suburb.

Turning from geographical to sociological description, we find the best indication of Bobigny's changing nature in the composition of its population. The census records of 1896 listed 1,678 inhabitants for the town; by 1902 this figure climbed to 1,946, representing a population increase of 536 percent from the population of 363 in 1856. The two major population groups were open-field farmers and market gardeners; with their dependents they made up two-thirds of the town's inhabitants. The remainder consisted of artisans, shopkeepers, railroad clerks, workers, and rentiers (pensioners). Since the farmers and market gardeners dominated the town's economic and political life in the late nineteenth century, I limit analysis of Bobigny's population in this period to them, for the contrasting ways of life of these two groups, and the relations between them, bring into sharpest relief the changes associated with the initial stages of suburbanization in Bobigny.

After the middle of the nineteenth century the open-field farmers of Bobigny abandoned their exclusive concentration on the production of cereals and began to grow vegetables as well. The farmers had been the most important group in Bobigny; at the turn of the century they still cultivated three-fourths of the land. Yet this dominance was called into question after the 1860s, when many market gardeners began to settle in Bobigny. Henceforth Bobigny's farmers had to compete with gardeners for both land and access to the Paris vegetable market. Vegetables were more profitable than wheat, yet the competition from market gardeners led many Bobigny farmers to return a larger part of their efforts to the wheat crop in the late nineteenth century.

Many market gardeners who moved into Bobigny after 1860 came from Paris, where the urban renovation unleashed by Baron Haussmann forced many Parisian market gardeners from neighborhoods like the Bastille and Vaugirard, where they had traditionally lived and worked. A larger number, however, came from the provinces, especially from the regions of Bourgogne and Morvan. These provincials were usually peasants who left their villages as a greater percentage of the agricultural land there was shifted to pasturage; the dynamism of the Paris vegetable market in the late nineteenth century attracted many to the metropolitan area. The high quality of Bobigny's wet, marshy soil, the flatness of the terrain, and the large amounts of open space all attracted market gardeners. The major impetus to invade Bobigny, however, was provided by the count of Blancmesnil, the town's largest (and absentee) landowner; after 1860 he began dividing up much of his land into small market-gardening plots (marais) and renting them out. By 1900, when this wave of immigration was nearing its end, Bobigny had become a major center of market gardening in the Paris region, and the market gardeners composed more than half the population of the town.

In the words of two later chroniclers of local life, the period from 1860 to 1900 was a golden age for Bobigny's market gardeners. Parisians' desire for fresh vegetables kept the gardeners prosperous, and they were able to build a strong sense of community among themselves. Unfortunately for the social cohesion of the town as a whole, this sense of community did not extend to the farmers, whom they now outnumbered by about three to one. Farmers and market gardeners were rarely neighbors; the former usually lived in the center whereas the latter lived next to their plots south and west of the place Carnot. The two groups seldom socialized. The farmers limited their communal social life to a few religious festivals each year, which they held in Bobigny itself; the market gardeners usually went to Paris to celebrate.

Relations between the two groups were tense in this period. Maurice Agulhon notes that at the turn of the century less than 3 percent of the marriages recorded were between farming and market-gardening families. Even in politics the two groups were divided. The farmers generally voted for the Party of Order, whereas the market gardeners tended to vote for the Radical or the Radical Socialist party. The new Bobigny of the late nineteenth-century market gardeners was simply superimposed onto the traditional farming community, not integrated into it.

Certainly any community that experiences the massive population shifts Bobigny underwent in the late nineteenth century is bound to experience tension between different social groups; established groups rarely react with equanimity to large-scale invasions of their territory by outsiders. Yet the problem centered on the dislocations that integrating Bobigny into the Paris area's economy caused, and on the different roles that farmers and market gardeners played. By 1900 traditional open-field grain farming was declining in the Department of the Seine, and the market gardeners' superior organization and techniques stymied the farmers' attempts to switch to vegetable production. Yet if the transition from a rural to an exurban community sharply divided Bobigny's two primary social groups, neither welcomed the prospect of Bobigny developing into a full-fledged Parisian suburb along the lines of neighboring Pantin or Aubervilliers. Paris had little to offer that the farmers wanted; as for the market gardeners, the capital was a place to sell their produce and to go to for occasional celebrations, little more. Both groups were largely self-sufficient in basic necessities and felt little need for the urban goods and services that close ties to Paris would bring.

A detailed description of the urban structure of Bobigny demonstrates what this attitude involved. The government was dominated by market gardeners, who had devoted little effort or attention to upgrading it. In spite of the growing economic links between the town and Paris, Bobigny's institutions in 1900 consequently suggested those of a small rural village rather than those of a metropolitan area. The transportation system, for example, was simple. Five large highways passed through Bobigny, which itself maintained twenty thoroughfares, nine of them unpaved rural roads. The total length of the eleven remaining streets, which composed Bobigny's urban grid, was less than seven kilometers. Public transport was minimal, a fact that is not surprising since farmers rarely went to Paris and most market gardeners drove there in their produce wagons.

The sole means of public transportation to Paris available to Balbynians was a stop on the Grand Ceinture railroad line, which ran through the community. Established in 1882, this stop enabled local residents to ride the train from Bobigny to Noisy-le-Sec, where they changed trains for Paris. The requirement of changing trains, plus the relative isolation of the stop from the center of Bobigny and its service by only five trains a day, made the Grande Ceinture railroad an inconvenient way to reach the capital; few people used it. So although the connections were not bad for what was still a small town, only in 1902 did the extension of tramway service to the community make working in Paris and living in Bobigny practical. Bobigny lacked many other services that urbanites take for granted.


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