- Interview by
- David Broder
Grigny isn’t often in the news for good reasons. The poorest city in France, this banlieue south of Paris is marked by massive unemployment and abandoned housing estates. For much of French media, Grigny is the very image of a “no-go zone”: one of its sons, Amedy Coulibaly, murdered four people at a Kosher supermarket in the 2015 terrorist attacks.
Yet there is also a fight to save the city from its plight — led by local mayor Philippe Rio, a member of the French Communist Party. In 2017, he organized the “Appeal from Grigny,” signed by hundreds of other mayors calling for investment in the banlieues. His innovative social programs and a COVID response based on locally issued emergency food vouchers this year saw him handed the biennial “best mayor in the world” award.
The prize given by the World Mayor Foundation hadn’t gone to a Communist before (and even this time around it was co-awarded to Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, a member of the Dutch Labour Party). But Philippe Rio’s administration has also had a wider impact in his homeland, especially through its lifelong education programs and its success in geothermal energy production, which has slashed residents’ bills.
Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to the mayor about life in Grigny, his political engagement, and the lessons of French municipal communism.
You’ve been named the world’s best mayor after being nominated by Grigny residents and other elected officials. What does this recognition mean for you — and the city you represent?
First, we had the surprise to be recognized among thirty-two cities, including Washington, Milwaukee, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, and New Delhi, as a city that had taken a lot of action during COVID-19 and in fighting poverty — both themes the London foundation focused on. Then, to be elected the world’s best mayor — well, that was something we never dreamed of.
We’re one of those areas that some wrongly call “no-go zones,” but which in truth express this country’s extreme inequalities. France has many billionaires, but Paris also has pockets of deep poverty and social and spatial segregation. In Grigny, half the population is under thirty and half the population is below the poverty line. This is France’s poorest city.
During the lockdown, we did what every town hall in France had to do — we reacted. And I emphasize the “we.” A mayor isn’t a superhero — we acted collectively to serve the public. During the onset of the pandemic, we built up a barrier against the incoming tsunami. Here the health care crisis immediately meant a social crisis; whenever there are economic setbacks, it’s us who suffer it quickest, and it takes time to pick ourselves back up again. It was the same with the 2008 subprime crisis: we’ve recovered from it somewhat, but we still aren’t at the level of before.
So, faced with an abrupt shock, we simply did our job: distributing masks, being in contact with the population, dealing with the food crisis.
Areas like ours are always at the heart of French political debate, and always being mistreated by the media — Éric Zemmour’s always banging on about the banlieues, security, and immigration. But it’s communities like ours that are building France’s future. So folks who live in Grigny suffer these fascist politicians’ messages that seek to exclude whole sections of the population.
When there’s Olympic champions or actors from the banlieue who make it in the United States, people clap. But as for the rest, we’re insulted and mistreated. So this award lifted our hearts, people called me up saying we’re the world champions. Life is hard here. But we’ve succeeded in our efforts and been recognized for them internationally. Even if the French media present us negatively, what they say about us isn’t true. That’s a tribute to Grigny as a working-class city, but also to the banlieues more generally. They, too, can be proud of our success.
You’re a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) and, before becoming mayor, you were active defending tenants locally, in the Grande Borne housing estates. How did you get involved?
I’ve been a member of the PCF since 1995 — since the last century. I’m often asked what it means to be a Communist. But I remember why I joined the party back then — and looking at France, today I’d have twice as much reason to join a movement whose guiding star is indignation against injustice.
I am myself a product of municipal-level communism. I’ve never been around what’s happening at the “top” of society, but rather the work of all those invisible activists — blue-collar workers, employees, and public servants — who devote their free time to helping others live better. It was they who trained me up in the life of associations, first of all on the sports field, which is about the people who give their time and money to helping you play in a football match.
In this context, you experience magnificent things, even if you come from a poor background like mine. My dad was an unemployed worker, my parents experienced the downgrading of the working class, and sometimes there wasn’t even much to eat. So I had the food aid and the Secours Populaire [a grassroots solidarity initiative], including from the Communist town hall.
We were almost evicted ourselves. And in our Grande Borne housing estate, the people who mobilized to stop others being kicked out of their homes were in the National Housing Confederation and the Tenants’ Aid. That included Communist militants, though not only them.
But I understood that the collective action being done by these invisible militants could change peoples’ lives. I found Communist activists because they were basically the only ones who were — are — still in the working-class estates. Not as much as in the past, but they were still around. So here I am, the product of that.
As you said, Grigny has a very young population, but it’s also an area in which a lot of people don’t get qualifications. So what can you do, as a city hall, on education?
I like that line from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” I believe that very much.
Some context: In Grigny, 50 percent of pupils leave the public school system without a diploma. This confirms another reality: the PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] rankings tell us that French schools are extremely unequal — and each successive study shows the gap’s growing. The republican school is meant to be egalitarian, in our land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. But that’s a state lie — for only half as many resources are given to a school in Grigny compared to the average in France in general. So the state is shaping people’s lives from the youngest ages. Our first act, in terms of what we can do in city hall, is to denounce these inequalities.
But as I said, I am the product of municipal communism. And part of this is the programs that Communists have built at the local level, even across very diverse territories. That means health care. That means the right to leisure, to holidays. Grigny is one of the progressive cities using local powers to achieve social emancipation.
The novelty of our educational approach — also inspiring other cities in France — is that for us, education also means culture and sport. So we have three tools at our disposal. We must do more and better schooling. We must do more and better culture. And we must do more and better sport. We might think that being hyperconnected through smartphones would allow us to talk to each other. But the loss of human contact means we need to weave the ties of community again.
Children’s success may be academic, sporting, or cultural, but the adult world is responsible for creating an atmosphere conducive to that. We’re aware that not all children will end up in the Grandes Écoles [elite higher education]. But there must be a platform for them to be full citizens. That’s also about providing lifelong learning. In Grigny, we have three schools, including one we created, which allows young adults, indeed all adults, to train when they don’t have a diploma. And the results are quite extraordinary.
We’re lucky to have a great chef, Thierry Marx, who has come to Grigny to create training schools for people who don’t have a diploma. We have an adult education center with five hundred trainees a year coming through who learn French, who train, who gain know-how, then go on into employment. We have another education center for health and social assistance.
We are inventive and innovative because we have no choice. The system is not made for us, and the answers provided from above do not correspond to our needs. So, as well as calling for more resources, we are obliged to create a side route, to change people’s prospects in life.
You mention this problem of resources, and while you are a Communist mayor in Grigny, the regional and national governments are in the hands of politically very different forces. What can you do to get funding from them, especially when it comes to long-term investment?
In our working-class neighborhoods we need to invent a new political narrative. I mentioned the scapegoating of whole areas — telling us that if France is going badly, it’s because of places like this. The events of January 2015 were an electroshock in France because the perpetrators of the attacks came from this country and grew up in the republican schoolroom.
For decades, mayors of different political persuasions, but who were in contact with the population, had been sounding the alarm. That’s our responsibility as elected representatives of the banlieue. To say “Wait a minute!” That whatever happens, these districts can’t be ignored, because we are the youth of France and will shape its future.
So, after the shock of the attacks, there was an important moment on October 16, 2017, with the Appel de Grigny for working-class neighborhoods, supported by associations and mayors of all parties — though not with the Front National, which was excluded — and with Jean-Louis Borloo, a recognized statesman in France, and two current candidates for the presidency, Anne Hidalgo [mayor of Paris] and Valérie Pécresse [president of the regional council].
They came together with a common republican demand, as the summer just before the Macron government had senselessly cut our already meager credits and, even worse, cut funding for neighborhood associations. That meant getting rid of forty thousand public-subsidized contracts overnight, on budgetary grounds, though it didn’t solve France’s budgetary problems.
So we made a national plan for the suburbs called Vivre en grand — living together, living large in the Republic. We want to reconcile the suburbs with the rest of France, because otherwise we’ll have a catastrophe. We made nineteen proposals. President Emmanuel Macron threw this report in the bin, but, for six months, the media allowed us to explain another story. The last time we’d talked about the suburbs in France for six months was during the 2005 riots. So local mayors and associations were sounding the alarm for a problem facing the whole country.
But then, last November 14, France announced the post-COVID recovery plan. Money was distributed everywhere — in rural areas, overseas territories, etc., but we had to ask, when is it going to be our turn, in working-class districts? It seemed the recovery train had passed without stopping in our station. But it’s in areas like this where the health and social crisis is worst. So we had to say stop. And the strength of this movement is that there were more than two hundred of us mayors writing to the president, both from the banlieues and even charming cities that have working-class neighborhoods, like Albi, Agen, or Cahors.
Then we had some meetings with ministers and the senior administration to make proposals, and, at the end of January, the prime minister came to Grigny, and eventually we managed to get them to release another €2 billion for urban renewal. So we’ve gone from sounding the alarm to getting solutions. We have a government that at first sometimes stubbornly refuses to listen to us — and I have huge differences with Emmanuel Macron. But at times like this, we have to rebuild the foundations of the Republic.
You mentioned the stigmatization of areas like Grigny, which also fits with the obsession with identity and security in the buildup to the 2022 election. But, even if we don’t accept talk of “no-go zones,” there clearly is real violence and the state reaching certain areas as a purely repressive force. What can be done to change that?
There’s no consensus on any issue in France, but policing is a cause of deep division. There is police violence, cases like Adama Traoré [a twenty-four-year-old who died in police custody in 2016] — reprehensible police actions against categories of French society. And I haven’t forgotten the police killed in their own homes. But the media debate is hysterical because it’s polarized only in terms of violence against the police or police violence, but they don’t talk about the other 90 percent of the issue — public policy, justice, community policing.
We got a police station in 2007, but in 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy closed it down for the sake of reducing public spending. Mr Sarkozy posed as the man of security but cut ten thousand police jobs, and his decisions also broke the intelligence services. This, too, had its consequences for what we’ve experienced in France. There are terrible testimonies of former intelligence officials who explain that they had to stop following Mohamed Merah [an Islamist terrorist who murdered seven people in 2012] because they no longer had the financial means to do so.
France is the fifth-leading economic power but has the thirtieth or fortieth justice system in the world. The youth justice system is a disaster. For years, there has been a left-right debate, community policing versus RoboCop police, where police only intervene to restore order, but in real life that doesn’t work. And today the French police, without saying so, are in the process of redoing community policing, but after a delay of fifteen or twenty years.
The region around Paris has an important history of municipal communism, and Grigny has been Communist-led for decades. But the party has also had setbacks in recent years, losing Saint-Denis in 2020. Since these city halls were first won back in the 1930s, there have clearly been huge changes in the world of work and the social profile of the banlieues, and Grigny has grown a great deal since the postwar decades. But, as “best mayor in the world,” what can you do to rebuild this kind of rooted presence for your party in the life of the local population?
The Communist Party has its victories and defeats. Life’s like that — there are no strongholds and no election wins are guaranteed. We have to pick ourselves up and continually reinvent ourselves.
It’s true — today the working class has changed. But I can assure you, the poor are still here. When people ask me, what’s the difference, Philippe, between when you lived in Grande Borne forty years ago and today, I say it’s that then there was 5 percent unemployment and now the figure is 50 percent. With its renewed hunger to capture wealth, liberal society is also creating poor workers.
In France, mayors are the most respected politicians. People have a more positive image of us than MPs, whether they vote for us or not. So we have a special responsibility as a last defensive dam of the Republic, in a moment where people no longer believe what the president or national representatives say. That’s also why we’re working on proposing national solutions, to answer the questions people are asking me face-to-face. That means confronting the challenge of the social transition, but also ecological transition. As a nice line by Nicolas Hulot puts it, that means connecting the problem of the end of the world to the problem of how people can make it to the end of the month.
Here, too, we’ve had to take responsibility. The Grigny 2 housing trust — with five thousand dwellings and seventeen thousand inhabitants — had its heating and hot water cut off because there were unpaid bills. It relied on natural gas, which depends on fluctuations in world prices, just like how it’s going up today. We couldn’t control anything. So we made an alternative, geothermal project, which is 100 percent publicly owned. We got heat from two kilometers under our feet. We cut the bills by 25 percent and saved the planet fifteen thousand tons of CO2 in one year. Well, I’m a Communist. And at the same time, saving the planet at my level. We like to joke that Grigny has ratified the Paris COP agreement.
Romain Rolland said that even in a hopeless situation, to fight is already hope. I have mayor friends governing populations who are having difficulties but are also rich. It’s a little easier to do socialism in those conditions than with a population suffering like ours is. We don’t exactly have oil to tap. But we do have geothermal energy, and we do have a totally different vision of how education should be.
I draw great inspiration from what’s happening elsewhere in the world — in Latin America, in Spain, but also mayors in North America and elsewhere in Europe, and all these invisible activists working for the general interest. But as we can see [with the divided field for] the French presidential election, this political family — the humanist forces of social transformation — have to talk to each other. At the local level, municipalities have been won back by a union [of the Left] with a clear program of change: in Lyon, in Bordeaux, and also in smaller towns and suburbs.
So I’m very sad about the national-level solution, and if you ask me who I’m going to vote for, I don’t know. But I really believe that local elected representatives have a role to play in this very complex situation, to maintain a thread of connection, to make sure that it doesn’t break. Because if we let go, I don’t know how our country is going to bounce back.