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Low-income neighbourhoods: we don’t want handouts, simply justice and equality!

Translated Tuesday 19 June 2018, by Philippa Griffin

Dismayed by the fate of the Borloo Plan – effectively abandoned by the Macron government in recent weeks – Marc Vuillemot, mayor of La Seyne-sur-Mer (Var), who will host the “general state of urban policies” day as part of the upcoming “Tour de France of solutions” – does not take pains to conceal his anger. He castigates “a new populism, which has taken hold in place of a fresh republican vision”.

Marc Vuillemot is the socialist mayor of La Seyne-sur-Mar, in the Var region of France, and also the president of a mayoral organisation “Ville et Banlieue de France” which, since 1983, has sought to develop and value the most disadvantaged and neglected neighbourhoods across the country. Vuillemot is one of the signatories of an appeal by 20 mayors published in the magazine “Obs” on 30th May. In addition, his town will host the next stage of the “Tour de France of solutions” on 14th June, which will examine the general state of urban policies. In our columns here at L’Humanité, Vuillemot shares his reactions to statements from Emmanuel Macron, and explains the reasons for this new appeal, launched less than one year after that of Grigny (1).

Why did you, and 19 other mayors and elected representatives, decide to denounce the neopopulism of Emmanuel Macron?

There may be only 20 of us, but I believe that we draw great strength from on-the-ground experience, from political diversity, and from the work which our colleagues, our teams and all relevant stakeholders accomplish day in, day out. And our anger is simply commensurate with the hope and confidence which the President himself invited us to invest in his beliefs and plans, in particular at his Roubaix speech (2). We truly believed in him. We thought that it was a useful and intelligent move on his part to commission a man such as Jean-Louis Borloo. And yet, this empathetic, unifying, and ambitious gesture, reasonably innovative for a head of state, has suddenly vanished, as if blown away by an evil genie. We thought that we were witnessing the birth of a fresh national vision, but instead we are presented with a new populism. This populism is alarmingly illustrated by the number of “white males” who now dominate the political sphere. The myth that the “head of state” can be truly on the same page as his people is shown to be false each time that democracy is in crisis, and when truly progressive forces in society are hard to find.

You write of the death of “national reconciliation”. Is France a divided country, therefore?

The fact that France is not more divided is because the ordinary person has not waited for the elite and the powerful to take action. It is thanks to the colossal efforts of all those who are labouring to reduce social divisions in our society, in the worlds of work, of voluntary action, in economic and cultural life….and of course, as mayors, we represent such people. Ridiculing us, or reducing us to powerlessness by means of austerity and technocratic gestures, merely helps to thwart any nascent community activity in our towns and our neighbourhoods. We wanted to remind Emmanuel Macron that populism, whether new or old, has never been a unifiying force amongst citizens. Instead, it has crushed them, leading them to believe that it is the populist way or no way.

On 14th June, your town will host a stage of the “Tour de France of solutions”, which will examine the general states of urban policies….

In our current political context, this stage will certainly be of special significance. Like each stage of the “Tour de France of solutions”, I want it to provide an opportunity to showcase the richness of our neighbourhoods, and our citizens’ positive and creative energy. La Seyne-sur-Mer is proud to host this day where a variety of local stakeholders will assemble to share and reflect: elected representatives, voluntary organisations, business leaders…. In fact, this is a true example of innovation (and which was highlighted during the preparation of the Borloo report): we must encourage, guide and drive forward those initiatives which exist already, and which simply require a little nurturing to allow them to rapidly flourish! The most deprived neighbourhoods do not crave state handouts. They benefit from fewer public services than other neighbourhoods, and towns receive 30% less public money than the average – so they simply seek justice and equality!

The stage to be hosted by La Seyne-sur Mer should culminate in the formulation of proposals. When will these be published ? Are any already prepared ?

It will be in October 2018, one year after the Grigny Appeal, that conclusions will be drawn from all our work. But, this time, we ask, will the resulting proposals be heard by the government? This is one of our objectives, sure, but far from the only one. I reiterate: we are making progress on a local scale. For example, in La Seyne, in our Berthe neighbourhood, an ‘exploratory women’s march’ was organised over several months in partnership between the townspeople and “Femmes dans la cite” (“Women of the estates”), an organisation which has achieved remarkable things for many years. In practical terms, these women ventured out together into the neighbourhood to understand their local problems first-hand. They then formulated ideas and proposals, thus displaying an innovative means of civic participation, and making a clear statement about their place and their role in their neighbourhood.

As for our proposals, the urban policy budget was slashed by 11% in the summer of 2017, even after successive cuts of 10% between 2012 and 2014 – a total reduction of €80M! The mayoral association “Ville et Banlieue de France” are formulating 30 proposals, ranging from alleviating the financial constraints upon our towns and villages, to increasing public funds for schools, local police forces, and more broadly, I emphasise, improved provision of public services. Gone are the days of a true Republic, of support for civic schemes, of opportunities to boost local power in our neighbourhoods. Yet these are now the fundamental pleas of the “people”. For real.

(1) On 16th October 2017, 150 mayors assembled in Grigny (in the Essonne region) to discuss the general state of urban polices. This was in response to the announcements of budgetary restrictions that were to be placed upon neighbourhoods. The mayors called for the government to “deliver a complete U-turn” and appealed for a “national response” to these announcements.

(2) In Roubaix on 15th November 2017, President Macron gave a decidedly purposeful speech about urban policy. Six months later, his warm words were shown to have been lip service, with the demise of the Borloo plan as of 22nd May 2018.

The appeal of local representatives against Macron’s “neo-populism”

20 mayors and local representatives have just launched an appeal to condemn government policy.

They are, quite simply, ‘appalled’. The 20 mayors and local representatives who signed the appeal that was published in “l’Obs” on 30th May did not mince their words following the announcement of Emmanuel Macron’s plans for low-income suburbs and estates. They write that “behind the shiny veneer of the Elysée Palace, our government has extinguished not only a sense of hope, but the possibility of national reconciliation.” In particular, they lament the clear absence, in Macron’s speech, of the results of “eight months of national organisation, of collaborative thinking and planning, of altruistic engagement” from local representatives, who have worked tirelessly with community groups and local populations to come up with real solutions. The signatories also emphasise that “It is clear that the lifeblood has been sucked from our communal and civic movement. Moreover, the movement’s principal source of inspiration – Jean-Louis Borloo – has been publicly ridiculed, in an undignified and scandalous way”.

They also condemn the exclusion of locally elected representatives from the Presidential Council of Towns and Cities, “held up as a magic bullet during the management of the project, directly contradicting the thrust of the presidential speech of November 2017.” The elected representatives see this as a way of “holding up civic participation as a model against local institutional networks”, which they consider to be a form of “neo-populism”: a process of “unblocking”, targeting both local representatives and institutional voluntary stakeholders”.
“The presidential discourse has considerably undermined the fabric – already somewhat weakened – of our local democracy.”

Among the signatories of this appeal are mayors and local representatives from various political schools of thought. In addition to Marc Vuillemot, the socialist mayor of La Seyne-sur-Mer, there are communists such as the mayor of Grigny, Philippe Rio, and the mayor of Montreuil, Patrice Bessac, environmentalists such as the mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Carême, and right-wing representatives such as the Republican senator Philippe Dallier or the mayor of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, Catherine Arenou, who prefers a different flavour of conservatism.

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