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Decoding the suburbs

by hidden europe


beyond the boulevard périphérique: the language of Parisian suburbs

Mention 'suburbs' to someone from England, the USA or indeed many other European countries, and you'll conjure up images of neat houses and carefully cultivated gardens. Crushingly boring perhaps, but a place to which many aspire. Mention 'les banlieues' to a Parisian and the barbarians beyond the walls of the civilised city spring to mind. To the effete folk of central Paris, the suburbs truly are another world. They are those dangerous and distant places that you glimpse as you speed out of Paris on the train.

Paris is of course accustomed to poverty. The realist painter Jean François Raffaelli produced some fine paintings of slums in his native Paris, but he didn't have to live in them. La Bohème and Les Misérables also did their bit to boost the status of living on the wrong side of the tracks. George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is full of squalid drunkenness and gnawing hunger, yet for all that, Orwell's prose invites a trip to the fictional Rue du Coq d'Or, if only to check that it really is as awful as Orwell depicts.

The slums that attracted the novelists and painters of earlier generations have all been smartened up, in that way the French do so very well.

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