Did the poor and troubled suburbs of Paris win Olympic gold?

The Francs-Moisins estate near the Stade de France, where a sign reads ‘Here we build (ourselves)’ (JULIEN DE ROSA)

Less than 500 meters separate the Stade de France – the glittering centerpiece of the Paris Olympics – and the crumbling Francs-Moisins estate, plagued by poverty and crime.

Samia Achoui, a secretary who lives in one of the gray blocks plagued by drug trafficking, does not have a ticket to attend the Games.

Instead, she listens from her window to the cheers and applause that echo across the canal.

Despite the name, the Paris Olympics will largely take place in Seine-Saint-Denis, on the other side of the ring road that separates the French capital from some of its poorest and most notorious suburbs, known as banlieues.

The densely populated workers’ department north of Paris is home to four of the Games’ major venues, the athletes’ village and other key Olympic sites.

Paris’s plan for the Games – which take place from July 26 to August 11 – leaned heavily on the recovery of an area that has absorbed wave after wave of immigration and has the youngest population in the country. A third of the 1.6 million people live below the poverty line.

France hopes to use the Olympics not only to boost ongoing redevelopment there, but also to change the feverish image of Seine-Saint-Denis as a crime-ridden collection of ghettos created during the suburban riots that erupted there started to be rearranged in 2005.

Its reputation took another blow in world media after the 2022 Champions League final fiasco, when football fans were attacked and robbed on their way to the Stade de France.

– ‘Folk games’? –

Mohamed Gnabaly is relentlessly optimistic about how the Games can help change Seine-Saint-Denis.

The mayor of Ile-Saint-Denis, the narrow island in the River Seine where part of the athletes’ village is built, is “obsessed” with turning the Olympics into “a people’s games.”

So much so that his small community brought 7,000 tickets – one for almost all residents.

The island, which has a number of grim apartment complexes, is being turned upside down by construction work for the Olympic Games.

But the mayor is determined to make the most of the Games now, despite his city hall being ransacked when riots broke out again in poor suburbs of France last June after police shot dead a teenager during a traffic stop outside Paris.

“I’ve been working on this for three years,” says Gnabaly, who is proud that the island is also home to the Olympic Games’ “Africa Station,” a fan zone dedicated to African culture and sports.

“We have suffered (with all the work), but this will not only transform our city, we will also be at the heart of the reactor,” the mayor emphasized. “We will not be left out of the Games.”

His optimism is not shared by everyone in Seine-Saint-Denis.

“There are two extremes,” said Cecile Gintrac of Vigilance JO, a local watchdog group. “One part of Paris becomes a big party, while the other can’t go to work or get around” because of all the Olympic road closures and restrictions.

Delivery driver Moussa Syla, 45, who lives on the Francs-Moisins estate – which is also getting a major facelift – said the thought of the disruption gives him a cold sweat.

“It’s going to be a nightmare to make ends meet,” he said.

– Renaissance –

It’s hard to go anywhere in Seine-Saint-Denis these days without seeing scaffolding or cranes building whole new neighborhoods.

The Olympics are part of a long-term move to move the department forward that began with the symbolic decision to build the Stade de France there for the 1998 World Cup, which France’s multiracial ‘rainbow team’ ultimately won.

High real estate prices in Paris and a massive, soon-to-be completed extension of the metro system to Seine-Saint-Denis – Europe’s largest infrastructure project – have made the department attractive to developers.

Companies like Tesla are moving their French headquarters to former industrial areas where factories have long been closed.

“We need to find a second wind for Seine-Saint-Denis so that jobs remain here,” said Isabelle Vallentin, the number two at Solideo, the state body in charge of realizing the Olympic projects.

And the “extremely dilapidated housing of Seine-Saint-Denis needs to be developed,” she added.

A large part of the 4.5 billion euro construction budget for the Games will go to this boost, with the department being the big winner, with around 80 percent of the 1.7 billion euros in public money. While private investment is harder to quantify, it is unlikely to be far behind.

– Home inheritance –

The Olympic Village, the largest construction project of the Games and a brand new eco-district in itself, will house 14,250 athletes and their support teams, as well as 6,000 Paralympians.

Built on a former industrial zone along the River Seine, it is architecturally varied, with many buildings facing the river. All homes under eight floors are built of wood and all of the village’s energy comes from heat pumps and renewable energy sources.

Once the Paralympic Games are over, the village will turn into a mixed neighborhood with apartments and offices. The first of the 6,000 new residents will move in early next year, followed by a similar number of employees.

But only a third of the 2,800 apartments will be sold on the open market.

Unlike previous Games such as London – where organizers were accused of “gentrification on an industrial scale” and failing to deliver on their promises to locals – Solideo’s Vallentin said they were insisting that developers “respond to the (local) first.” housing needs’.

So 25 to 40 percent of the apartments, depending on the three municipalities the village includes, will go to social housing, while the rest will be rented out at ‘affordable’ rents through semi-public housing organizations.

Seine-Saint-Denis’s other big win is a series of new swimming pools, which are urgently needed.

Most striking is the Olympic Aquatic Centre, a spectacular undulating wooden building opposite the Stade de France, where the medals for diving, water polo and artistic swimming will be decided.

It will also have the main Olympic swimming pool, which will be dismantled and divided in two after the Games, as well as a new training pool. The organizers are also helping pay for two others.

– ‘A real plus’ –

Olympic venues are popping up like confetti in Seine-Saint-Denis, with the town of Dugny likely to be transformed by the Games.

The population is expected to grow by a third thanks to housing on a site inherited from the Olympic Games ‘media cluster’. Until now poorly served by public transport, Dugny is using the Games to diversify its housing stock, 77 percent of which is social housing – the highest percentage in France.

A third of the 1,400 new homes will be set aside to get people onto the property ladder.

Dugny’s young mayor Quentin Gesell said that many of his friends “who, like me, grew up in Dugny had to leave because they cannot buy or rent here [their incomes being too high for social housing] while they would have preferred to stay close to their family.”

Another, subtler transformation is likely to come about through a series of new footbridges connecting areas long separated by the main road and rail arteries that cross the department.

Back near the Francs-Moisins estate, a pedestrian and cycle bridge is being built over the Saint-Denis Canal to the Stade de France, replacing an old and unreliable rotating road bridge and a pedestrian crossing with steep steps.

“It’s a nightmare to cross now,” said Karene, mother of three. “You have to fold the stroller up and take the baby in the other arm. So this is really great, a real plus for the environment.”

The bridge had been discussed for years, but the Games convinced it and provided two-thirds of the 10.5 million euros costs.

The Olympics have been the “pivot that accelerated the transformation” of the department, Stephane Troussel, the Socialist head of the Seine-Saint-Denis council, told AFP.

“In record time we have managed to deliver a huge amount of infrastructure, housing, roads and bridges,” he said.

– ‘Poorly paid’ jobs –

But there are doubts about the jobs the Games promised to bring to the department, whose 10.4 percent unemployment rate is almost a third higher than the national average.

“The Games Recruiting – Get a Job!” declared the flyer for an Olympic job fair near Charles de Gaulle Airport in December.

“I’ve visited a lot and it’s always the same,” said Fouad Yousfi as he walked among the stalls looking for cleaners and pastry chefs. “Not exactly the companies you would like to work for, and often poorly paid.”

Stephane Laurent, 47, who “wanted to get a job quickly”, left another fair in Saint-Denis with an offer to train as a security guard – something the Games are in great need of.

While official estimates indicate that around 180,000 people will work on the Games, most will be on short-term contracts, such as the 6,000 people Sodexo is hiring for catering at the Olympic Village.

“We have to be honest: there is probably a discrepancy between what was expected from the Games and the level of unemployment and insecurity that we are experiencing,” said Bernard Thibault, a former CGT union leader who sits on the Olympic committee.

Local companies have also benefited, winning contracts worth 330 million euros, according to the Seine-Saint-Denis municipal council.

But others wonder whether the economic dividend of the Games has filtered through.

“We are one of the winners,” said Mehdi Ourezifi of Services Persos, a local non-profit organization that won part of the washing contract for the Olympic Village. “But overall, local businesses and return-to-work programs have been disappointed,” he added, given the windfall provided by the Games.

– Stubborn old statue –

But beyond the economic and infrastructure gains, one of the greatest legacies of the Olympics could be the way Seine-Saint-Denis is perceived.

Police have already stepped up operations against drug dealers, street vendors and others who “monopolize public space”, and a large-scale security operation is planned for the Games themselves.

But after a police station was attacked last week after a youth was killed during a police car chase, and the head of the Mongolian delegation was robbed of jewelry worth nearly 600,000 euros on his way to a security committee meeting in October, The Old image proves difficult to shake.

By welcoming visitors from all over the world this summer, Seine-Saint-Denis hopes to write a new chapter in its history, one that emphasizes its diversity and potential rather than crime and sporadic outbreaks of riots.

Back at the Francs-Moisins estate, Karene prays that ‘the visibility’ will do everyone good.

“I hope it is well organized because if it is like football (the chaotic scenes before the 2022 Champions League final), Saint-Denis’ image will plummet again.”


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