My wife and I have been living in France for the past nine months in a city near the Mediterranean coast. But it’s not quite what you think. It’s not Paris, or the French Riviera, or some quaint little town surrounded by vineyards in the countryside.
We live in Montpellier, the largest city in France’s poorest region, the Languedoc-Roussillon, which has the highest jobless rate in a country that just hit a twelve-year high for unemployment.
In other words, we live in the Rust Belt of France.
Before we moved here we had, like most Americans, imagined France to be a place of bustling outdoor cafés, sprawling esplanades, grands chateaux, fois gras, and day-drinking. And we’ve found this to be partly true. We live in the heart of Montpellier’s well-kept medieval centre ville, in the fifth-floor apartment of an 18th-century building with stone floors and a spiral staircase. The streets outside are narrow and winding, wide enough for small French cars but narrow enough to leap from rooftop to rooftop, like Jason Bourne. We buy fresh-baked baguettes from the boulangerie every morning. We drink cafés out of tiny cups. Sometimes we have wine with lunch. In a lot ways we live in the idyllic France we’d always imagined, and it’s great.
But there’s another France down here in the Languedoc-Roussillon that permeates our idyllic France. It’s the France of nomadic crustpunks and jobless graduates and teenage beggars who pretend to be handicapped. It’s the France of disproportionately large numbers of crazy, homeless drunks and their scraggly dogs. It’s a place where entire neighborhoods and cities of unassimilated North African immigrants live in ghettos outside the prosperous urban centers, ignored and forgotten by mainstream French society.
If you’re able to look past all its problems, though, Montpellier itself is a lovely city — one of the best in the south of France. We feel safe and welcome (something we can’t say about other places in the Languedoc-Roussillon, or Marseilles), and despite everything Montpellier is a place we really enjoy most of the time, which is a good thing because in the end there’s no way to ignore its troubles; you have to learn to live with them, no matter how much reality clashes with your expectations.
We moved here because the university my wife attends offered her the opportunity to teach for a year at the University of Montpellier, situated less than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean coast. We knew nothing about Montpellier and I spoke very little French, but the idea of spending a year in the south of France was compelling. She would take a break from her graduate studies to teach, I would spend time writing, teaching English, and learning French. We would stroll through les places by day and drink wine on terraces by night. Our year in France was going to be perfect.
And then we got here. We didn’t know much about the city’s neighborhoods, and during our first week we rented a room in the Figuerolles-Gambetta section, only a few blocks from centre ville. Our dilapidated two-story house sat on a corner and faced an abandoned, graffiti-lined lot on one side and a row of fish mongers and kebab shops on the other. The store signs were all in Arabic, and after sundown there were no women or children on the streets and the men sat outside drinking tea and talking. This wasn’t the France we’d been expecting; it felt like we’d gotten on a train in Paris and stepped off somewhere in Algeria or Tunisia.
The trouble with Figuerolles-Gambetta is not that it’s an immigrant neighborhood, but that immigrants here are not really integrated into French society and most of them live in isolated, economically-depressed enclaves, like the infamous suburban housing projects that ring Paris, les banlieues, which erupted in riots in 2005.
Montpellier, like most other French cities, has its own petite banileue at the end of the tramline, in Mosson, where in the 1960s the city built a series of public housing projects on what was fallow scrubland, far removed from the city center. The idea was to repatriate and integrate Pieds-Noirs, French nationals who fled Algeria after the war, and accommodate a huge number of Muslim refugees and immigrants from the Maghreb.
It didn’t work. The city’s population almost doubled between 1960 and 1970, and Mosson quickly turned into an over-crowded ghetto. Today, the entire neighborhood looks like a developing country: a cluster of decrepit apartment towers overlook graffitied housing complexes with small balconies draped in drying laundry and satellite dishes bolted to crumbling concrete façades.
Every Sunday in Mosson there’s a sprawling flea market. Vendors spread out their wares on tarps — everything from piles of used clothes to stolen car-door mirrors and headlights — and haggle over prices. Most of it is just normal stuff people need to survive: clothes, tools, random household items. But there’s also little oddities, like a WWI French propaganda magazine I bought for just one euro, which seemed really cheap until I realized that there weren’t a lot of other people there interested in official French government propaganda.
Mosson, like all of France’s banlieues, is the unhappy result of the country’s strict universalist model for assimilating foreigners, in which citizenship is supposed to trump ethnic, racial, and religious identity. That looks good on paper, but in France integration has always been a fiction if you’re non-white or Muslim. A French Algerian friend of mine told me that it’s common for North African immigrants to change their names if they become doctors or a lawyers because most French people will not go to someone with a foreign name on their office door.
This same friend — whose French-born father-in-law doesn’t consider her truly French because her parents emigrated from Algeria in the ’70s — said she was shocked to hear immigrants in New York talk about how they were proud to be Americans and how they loved the United States. No French immigrant would ever say such a thing, she told me, because France does not love them, and so they do not love France.
Montpellier’s problems, of course, aren’t confined to Mosson but extend into the heart of centre ville. One of the main commercial arteries is Rue de la Loge, a wide street lined with ornate 19th-century buildings that runs from the Préfecture, the seat of government for the Languedoc-Roussillon, to the Place de la Comédie, an enormous public square and the focal point of the city, anchored by a large, beautiful 18th-century fountain called The Three Graces.
The Comédie and Rue de la Loge are elegant and charming and represent the best of Montpellier. They are also, unfortunately, frequented by gangs of drunk crustpunks and their dogs, and quasi-homeless guys playing old-timey blues songs on ukuleles. (The ukulele players are actually pretty good guys, for the most part.)
And although we have homeless people and crustpunks in the United States, it’s nothing like in Montpellier, where there are far more of what the French call SDF (sans domicile fixe, or homeless) than there should be for a city with a population of less than 300,000. Walking down Rue de la Loge or through the Comédie on any given day you can see more than one small encampment of able-bodied, dreadlocked guys and girls sitting on dirty backpacks drinking malt liquor tallboys. Sometimes on the weekend they’ll spread all their stuff out in the entryway of a closed storefront or in front of The Three Graces fountain and camp out all day, pissing in the street and raising hell.
A certain group of crustpunks hang out and drink in front of a grocery store on the Comédie with their dogs. Most of the time they’re aggressively, drunkenly arguing with each other or beating the dogs, making the grocery store a place to dread (but we still have to go there because it’s the only one in centre ville). The reason they all keep dogs is because the police are required to place dogs in protective care if they arrest the owners, which I guess is a bureaucratic headache, so instead the cops just turn a blind eye.
I should point out that not all homeless people here are rabble-rousing crustpunks; some of them suffer from serious mental illness and are in dire need of help. About month ago a homeless guy grabbed a knife from a café table in the Comédie and stabbed himself three times in the heart. He died a few minutes later in the nearby esplanade, the knife still stuck in his chest.
Like much of France’s Rust Belt, Montpellier is also home to a large number of Roma, also known in France as gens du voyage (travelers) or gypsies — a term that’s not considered an offensive ethnic slur in France the way it sometimes is in the U.S., but which, given everything else I’ve learned about French society, isn’t really saying that much.
In Montpellier, Roma have various methods of begging and busking that involve children and teenagers. Sitting at a café on the Comédie, it’s common for Roma girls no older than four or five to come around with a plastic cup or an open hand and ask for change while their parents play music in the square, and we usually give them something.
The scheme of Roma teenagers, however, is a bit more cynical. They solicit donations for a bogus charity for people with hearing and speech disabilities, which they do by pretending to be deaf or mute. They approach carrying a clipboard with a photocopied form on it and begin making sounds meant to imitate someone with a hearing disability, signaling to give them cash or write down your credit card information.
During one of our first weeks here we saw one Roma teenager try this on a person who was actually disabled and who became very angry and started berating the kid, who just ran away. But usually they’re pretty forceful and have no qualms about getting right in your face with the clipboard. This has happened to me five or six times, and at first I tried saying in French that I didn’t speak French, but they would just say, “English? German?” So now I just shake my head and pretend I’m deaf.
And that’s kind of what the French do; they play deaf and blind to the glaring social problems around them, preferring instead to think of their country in the same idealized terms my wife and I once thought of it. It’s almost possible to do this in Montpellier if you never go to Mosson or Figuerolles-Gambetta, or if you steer clear of the crustpunks and shoo away the Roma kids—almost possible, but not quite. The stark reality of France is, ultimately, all around you, sleeping and dying in the streets, begging for money, looming in the distance at the end of the tramline, out in the crumbling banlieues.