CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1The results of a field survey conducted over a period of seven years in the Cosmonauts district, a public housing project located in the suburbs north of Paris, provide empirical material through which to investigate the forms taken by the “ethnicization” of the social in the working-class milieu, and the ways in which this process is set in motion and circulated. [1] By ‘ethnicist ’ we designate any system, more or less coherent and more or less formalized, that explains social phenomena through the ethnic lens. Ethnicity offers a principle, through which to perceive and divide the social world, that allows individuals to situate themselves in relation to one another and, more decisively, to grasp their experiences and practices within a world of meanings in which the ethnic factor appears dominant. Explanations of the “deterioration of the neighborhood” or “insecurity” through the overwhelming presence of “foreigners” or, conversely, the situation of youth unemployment through the idea of “discrimination” in hiring, nicely exemplify the trend towards the ethnicization of schemas of perception and interpretation of the social world. While problems of security, coexistence in the housing projects, or of jobs could potentially be inscribed and interpreted using the categories of the “economic” or the “social” – in relation to “mass unemployment”, for example – or in terms of “social inequality”, “education” or even “exploitation” – very frequently, as we shall see, it is instead the cognitive frameworks of ethnicity and racism that social actors mobilize. [2]

2The research program implemented in this neighborhood allows us, among other things, to identify the ways in which those stereotypes circulate and help establish a world of meaning organized around the categories of ethnicity and race. Our task is, in particular, to identify, in a context characterized by the coexistence of people of African origin with so-called “native” French, just how these categories are maintained. How do these categories organize discourse, how do they orient perception, how do they give meaning to social practices and experiences and, ultimately, how do they contribute to the production of both individual and collective identities? It is this ethnicist framing of social reality in the lower classes as it is heard – through discourse – and seen – through the observation of behavior – which we seek to explore here.

3With this goal in mind, basing the study on a local field of observation has several methodological advantages. It allows us to proceed based on ethnographic observation and on formal and informal interviews which, without a doubt, offer one of the best means of access to an object of study as complex as a set of cognitive schemata with an ethnic dimension. [3] These schemata can, in fact, only be grasped, even partially, through intensive investigation, and particularly through in-depth interviews, preferably repeated over time. [4] Another advantage of a localized approach over a long period of time lies in the way it enables us to take into account, based on direct observations, social interactions between individuals and groups and, thereby, to better identify how categories of ethnicity are inscribed into the relational logic that is the basis of these categories ’ activation and circulation.

4The observation undertaken in the Cosmonauts neighborhood also allows us to identify the extension of this ethnicization of cognitive schemata into the field of practice and, specifically, into voting behavior. [5] Indeed the affective investment made by voters in their origins should not be ignored if we are to realistically analyze the production of electoral choices in this working-class neighborhood. Among some of the “native” French a broadly ethnicized conception of national identity, associated with hostility to “outsiders”, tends to steer votes toward the National Front or, in the most recent presidential election, to the UMP [Union pour un mouvement populaire; originally called Union pour la majorité présidentielle] candidate. Meanwhile, those French of African descent, who today make up half of those registered at the polling station of the housing project, give their votes (when they do vote), almost exclusively to the political left, their motives predominated by social issues and ethnically based identity claims. To borrow a distinction from the Marxist analysis of the construction of social classes, what matters here is not ethnicity in itself, but rather ethnicity for itself, such as it is produced and mobilized by agents with the consequence that it becomes, among other things, a component of voting identity.

5The Cosmonauts housing project can therefore be used as a laboratory, to study the current changes in the working-class milieu. This area offers an observation point potentially representative of the wider reconfigurations of social identities, which are at work in contexts marked by social and ethnic segregation, by the casualization of salaried labor, by the loss of systems of territorial management derived from the “labor movement” and by the decline of socio-political identities based on class. This is why the results of our investigations recorded here lead us to wider hypotheses about the importance, on a larger scale, of ethnic identity in electoral matters. One issue at stake is that of determining whether we are witnessing the emergence of an electoral group made up of French people of African descent, who, like African-Americans and for quite similar reasons, [6] identify themselves permanently with the political left. Another goal is to establish whether the changing balance of electoral power, visible in the working classes over the last three decades, can find one of its explanatory principles in the emergence (from the 1980s onward?) of an electoral logic based on ethnic divides. Introducing a principle of division into the heart of working-class neighborhoods, this divide could also help us understand, more generally, how it is that working-class areas have shifted from the substantial predominance of the political left in the late 1970s to a relative balance of electoral power by the first decade of the 2000s. [7]

“Ethnic” origin as the basis of social identity

6In a housing project like the Cosmonauts, it is striking how everyone knows the exact origins of everyone else, and how these origins are an essential dimension of identity. Hence Sabrina Djouaher, [8] with whom we have had friendly relations for several years, always specifies, when she talks about someone: “he’s a Malian, he’s Senegalese, he’s Moroccan”. Among younger people, in a usually friendly way, one “teases” back and forth between “Algerians” and “Tunisians” for example. Similarly, many young girls seem willing to comply with an environment that does not tolerate marriage with non-Muslims. [9] This is reminiscent of the – somewhat symmetrical – situation of other young, so-called “native” French girls in the housing project, who are sometimes forced to conceal from their parents their relationships with boys of their age who are of Maghrebi origin.

7Here, probably as in every housing project of the same type, individuals use their “ethnic” origin as a basic point of orientation. These origins operate as a principle of division, but also, crucially, as a principle of unity. Indeed it is based on these categories that the fundamental division between “us” and the “others” is made. [10] In this perspective, the distinction between “French” and “foreigner” is the most decisive. [11] It seems, and we will come back to this point, to be a distinction deeply internalized by many “French” people, but also by “foreigners”.

8What should be emphasized here is how the principles of construction of such identities (and the groups those identities then define), are essentially independent of legal categories and, in particular, of nationality. The prevailing view here of “French” identity (and thus of belonging to the “French group”), proved, in fact, deeply ethnicized, if not racialized. Being “French” means being “white”, having a first and last name that sound “French”, etc. By contrast “foreigners” are all those whose skin is black or “swarthy” and whose names and surnames reflect non-European origins, or who practice the Muslim religion. This ethnicist – even racialist – conceptual system is primarily that of (some) so-called “native French”. It corresponds fairly closely to the production of categories and meaning undertaken in the space of representation since the early 1980s by the extreme-right National Front (FN). [12] But it also seems to have been quite deeply internalized by those this system would exclude from the ‘French group ’, namely people of foreign nationality, of course, but also French people of foreign origin.

9The terms used by this final group – we shall return to this issue later – reflect how often they struggle to perceive themselves as fully French. In this context, even individuals for whom access to French nationality is nothing new, since they are from the French overseas departments and territories – the DOM-TOM – sometimes end up internalizing their relative exclusion from “the French group” and identifying instead with those “foreigners” with whom they share the same skin color, and thus shared experiences of stigmatization and racism. Thus, in an interview she gave us a few weeks before the first round of the last presidential election (2007), a young girl, whose parents are from Martinique and Guadeloupe, made a revealing verbal slip. When we asked her for which candidate her parents voted in the second round of the 2002 presidential election, she answered:


Élisa Justin: Chirac, I won’t lie to you. He comes across as a bit of an old geezer but we had no choice.
Us: It was necessary to block Le Pen?
Élisa Justin: Anyone but Le Pen, De Villiers. It’s not worth it. I understand their ideas […] they want to discourage us from coming here. Of course one can’t accommodate everybody in the same house. But they demonize (people) too much.
Surprised by the ‘us ’ that seems to indicate that she feels she falls into the category of foreigners, we continued:
Us: When you say ‘us ’, you consider yourself an ‘immigrant ’?
Élisa Justin: No, in relation to the government or the state I feel French […]. (But) the problem is that stereotypes remain: that of the white Frenchman, with a proper French first name like Bertrand. In the United States it’s different, in the sense that they have less of a history. There’s racism, but it’s different. There are Afro-Americans, but they’re Americans first. No one will say ‘he’s an African ’. You see what I mean!” [13]

“Prisoners of the ghetto”

11Since its founding in the late 1960s, the Cosmonauts housing project has undergone significant developments that have contributed to fundamentally transforming its social and demographic composition. From the 1970s, here as throughout areas of the same type, we have witnessed the gradual departure of members of the lower middle class and of working-class aristocracy, for whom the new housing projects built in the 1960s were just a stage in a longer residential career, of which the culmination was home ownership in a low-rise suburb. [14] Turnover was from the outset very high among the inhabitants of the Cosmonauts. The first residents, primarily so-called “native” French, were gradually replaced by a population of foreign origin, coming notably from African immigration (Maghrebi first, then black African). The official statistics available do not allow us accurately to measure this phenomenon. They only take into account, as far as we know, the criterion of nationality. [15] Using this criterion, the 1990 census showed that about 25% of residents in the neighborhood were foreign nationals. Not taking into account the “origin” of people of French nationality, such data does nothing to allow the assessment of the proportion of French people of African origin residing in the neighborhood. Whatever position one adopts on this issue, [16] it is clear that the categories constructed by the official statistics are very distant from the categories deployed by agents on the ground in order to identify themselves and define others. And in a neighborhood like the Cosmonauts, in fact such statistics tend de facto to obscure what is perceived by the whole citizenry as a shift towards the “ethnic ghettoization” of the housing project. Simply to go to the Cosmonauts is to observe how many of the younger generation are French people of African or Caribbean origin. This is particularly visible in the primary school in the heart of the housing project. In April 2002, between the two rounds of the presidential elections, when we followed a course in civics there, we found that only one pupil in the class we attended was not of African origin.

12This trend is also identifiable (albeit in an indirect and unavoidably imprecise way) in the electoral registers of the district. At the time of the 1974 presidential election, virtually all those registered (99%) had European-sounding names. At the time of the 1995 election, there was an increasingly significant presence – 15% – of registered voters whose names indicated they were of African origin. Seven years later, with the presidential elections in 2002, this proportion had risen sharply, since French people of African descent then represented almost one third of those on the list: 32%. Finally, after the great voter registration effort in the winter of 2006, they constituted nearly half of voters registered at the polling station in the housing project: 46%. [17] To this we can add that about 10% of those registered were born in the French overseas departments and territories (DOM-TOM).

13The turnover that characterizes this polling station and its changing composition in terms of voter origins allows us to better concretize the major trends that have affected this neighborhood in recent decades. The presence of more and more foreigners – about a quarter of tenants, according to the INSEE – and of French people of African origin who have acquired citizenship through jus soli, elicited reactions of rejection among so-called “native” French people. It is certainly no coincidence that in the early 1990s the National Front obtained its best election results here, up to 45% of votes in the second round of legislative elections of 1993 – at a time when the housing project became, in the eyes of its original inhabitants, a neighborhood of social relegation, stigmatized by the presence of “foreigners”. But these reactions of rejection did not manifest themselves purely in electoral terms. They also appeared, from the mid-1990s, in the mass exodus of a large fraction of the French “natives” still living in the neighborhood. Thus, between the 1990 census and that of 1999, nearly half of the homes in the housing project changed tenants. In carrying out their desire to “flee the housing project” these people can be said to have voted with their feet, by demonstrating their refusal to remain in a neighborhood characterized by an ever-more massive presence of “foreigners”. In turn, these residential strategies accelerated the dynamics of ghettoization. This was a development that translated into election results, since support for the National Front literally collapsed in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Thus, in the 2002 presidential election, while Jean-Marie Le Pen got a record number of votes at the national level, his results were, proportionately, slightly lower in the Cosmonauts: about 15% of the votes cast. [18] In 2007, the FN support substantially decreased again, to 9.3% in the first round of presidential elections and 5.6% in the first round of parliamentary elections. There was a similar trend in all housing projects of the same type, also observable at the departmental level in departments mainly composed of large, high-rise housing projects, such as the department of Seine-Saint-Denis. In this respect it is revealing of demographic trends at work for over a decade now that the FN was unable to run any list of candidates at all in the 2008 municipal elections in this department, where it had once, during the 1990s, posted record scores.

14Among the “native” French, those who have not left the neighborhood are mostly kept there against their will. This frequently includes older people, who have lived in the Cosmonauts since the construction of the project in the late 1960s. They have watched their children and their friends leave one by one to settle in the provinces or in low-rise suburbia. Among them, those we interviewed generally expressed a desire to flee a neighborhood in which they feel like “prisoners” of an environment where they consider themselves a “minority”. [19]

Explaining the social (malaise) through the ethnic

15We can define as ethnicist, as mentioned above, any system of social explanation reliant upon ethnicity. In the Cosmonauts, where a quarter of the population lived below the poverty line in 2006, individuals feel they are mostly confronted by “social problems”. Here, ethnic explanation of social problems operates effectively on the basis of a two-pronged logic: 1) Social problems are mainly due to the presence and behavior of “foreigners” and 2) As for this behavior by “foreigners”, it is explained precisely through the fact that they are “foreigners”. To “foreigners” – in other words to all whose “ethnic” or “racial” characteristics allow us to assign “foreign” origins to them – is thus attributed, for example, the degradation of stairwells and of the neighborhood in general. “Foreigners” are held to be the ones writing the graffiti covering the walls of the stairwells: likewise “they” destroy mailboxes (including setting them on fire) and digital door codes, they dismantle the bulbs in hallways, throw garbage out the windows and they are responsible for bad odors in the neighborhood. This was emphasized when we met Odette Durantin, in front of the polling station during the first round of parliamentary elections in June 2002: “It was good before. There were a lot of French, but now only blacks […], their cooking smells bad.” They are also accused of being noisy. Of playing with “tuned up mopeds”, whose exhaust pipes backfire until late at night. It is “they” who have noisy gatherings in the stairwells until the early hours of the morning.

16Moreover, “foreigners” are blamed for the bad image and reputation of the neighborhood, which reinforces the sense of social demotion experienced by the French “natives” living in the housing project. The “foreigners” are to blame if “no one” (meaning “among the native French”) wishes to move there anymore. For, as Christine Sanchez says to the concierge, despite our presence: “when you go into the building and you see Anissa… excuse me, Mireille,… well you don ’t want to come back!” [20] This logic even allows some people to identify the explanatory principle of their own inner suffering. In the Cosmonauts, among the older people, there are men and women who clearly live in situations of deep loneliness. And some of them tell us that if their kids are gone and do not come and visit them very often, in large part this is because of what the neighborhood has become. Thus, during the first round of regional elections in 2004, a man, about 70 years old, visibly suffering from alcoholism, told us that his children no longer visit him, ever since their car was broken into in the housing project.

17A number of people also express their sense of being strangers in their own land. This is the case, for example, for Henri Lepage, a former supervisor who belonged to the Communist cell in the housing project. When, after the second round of municipal elections of 2008, we talked with him about the presidential ballot, his hostility to “foreigners who should be thrown into the sea”, (as he told us regularly for six years in each of our meetings) reappeared with a vengeance:


Us: You voted for him in the presidential election? [Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he had just described as a ‘garden gnome ’.]
Henri Lepage: Yes and I was conned because I don’t see the same man now.
Us: You voted for him in both rounds?
Henri Lepage: For Sarkozy? Oh no! In the first round I voted for Le Pen.
Us: […] People said he picked up a lot of National Front voters in the first round.
Henri Lepage: Ah no! No, but you know, he copied a lot of stuff from Le Pen. Le Pen, he said about French nationality ‘if they don’t like being in France: they can fuck off ’. That’s what I say; I won’t force anyone to stay. When he said: ‘the fact of being French, it’s something you earn ’, well he’s not wrong. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there was a murder last week, two buildings further on. They arrested the guys who were stopping people on the highway on motorcycles and robbing taxis. They broke windows and stole bags from people coming from Roissy. […] They came to sort through the garbage cans down below.
Us: I think they searched the area. And they found something, I think?
Henri Lepage: It doesn’t stop, there’s been drugs, there’s all sorts of things. That’s why I applied for a transfer. And they called me into the office. But it’s a shame, because I applied for a transfer myself, but it used to be good here. Now we have nothing. To get money, I have to go further than La Fontaine, over there, to go to the post office. Or I go to La Courneuve. There’s nothing here. No shops. We have nothing. The bread is Arab bread. I don’t like it. There’s nothing French: the butcher is halal. If you don’t like it you have to eat it anyway. No it needs to stop!”

19All this creates a powerful nostalgia that we almost always observed when in contact with the first generation of the neighborhood’s residents. For those who feel trapped in the ghetto, it is with regret that they evoke the neighborhood of the early days: the pioneer period, when people got on “together” in a climate of solidarity and fraternity. [21] Many people described to us with regret the old block parties – in the 1970s, with their cheerleaders – completely unlike the current versions, featuring the “belly dance”. [22] The decline attributed to “foreign” elements stretches far beyond the strict boundaries of the housing project. Such people are held generally responsible for all the forms of insecurity that make life difficult in the poor communities of Seine-Saint-Denis: from the snatching of handbags and cell phones to the trafficking of drugs, and even carjacking.

20All of these behaviors attributed to “foreigners” are perceived as all the more shocking because such people are expected to adopt the “discretion of the foreigner”, analyzed by Abdelmalek Sayad. [23] They should, on this basis, behave better than average, and be more discreet, reserved and polite, because their arrival was not desired and they should therefore work harder to win acceptance. [24]

A racism of victimhood

21Within this inverted order of values, in which it is the “foreign-hoodlums” who make the law, the “honest people” or “good French” see themselves as victims. They do not manifest a triumphant, dominant form of racism, but rather a racism of victimhood and of the dominated. [25] Indeed, in this case ethno-racial categories are mainly mobilized, as we have just seen, to account for social suffering and humiliation. It follows a logic of victimization, in which people perceive themselves to be punished just for being “good French people”. One effect of this is to make racist speech less illegitimate, since it is produced in reaction to the humiliations and attacks suffered continuously by this group and, in particular, in reaction to the “anti-French racism” perceived to be practiced by both the government and by “foreigners”.

22Jean-Luc Chifflet, who welcomed discussion every time we went to the Cosmonauts housing project, is an exponent of this type of logic. He seems to have deeply internalized the idea that he is the victim of a sort of “preference for foreigners”. Among the inhabitants of the city who vote regularly for the National Front, he is one of the few who appeared to feel some interest in talking to us, without much disguising his political orientation, though during our first telephone conversation, he said he wanted to vote for the CPNT [Chasse, pêche, nature, traditions]. After failing a professional qualification to become a fitter-toolmaker, Jean-Luc Chifflet began his career in the world of small business, first as a dairyman aged 18, then as an assistant butcher in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, an area that he still calls his “neighborhood”. Then he worked as a store man in several supermarkets in the Paris region before passing an examination of the OPHLM Saint-Denis and becoming a “concierge”. His work consists of building maintenance, in other words in taking out the trash, cleaning the stairwells and making minor repairs to tenants ’ apartments. At the time of the 2002 elections, he had been on leave for four years, following an “accident at work”. This 46-year-old man had a passion for football. A supporter of Olympic Marseille, a subscriber to Canal+ and the TPS channel so as not to miss a single game, he coached a youth team in Aubervilliers. A father of six children at the time of the interview, he had wanted his only son to have a footballing career. And he believed that the failure of this dream was due to unfair competition between “a little white boy” and “foreigners”. When asked if his son played football well, he replied:


“Well enough for me. But they look for big, beefy footballers. He’s a little bit small. A little white lad! There have been great players who were small, but in Aubervilliers they look for big, beefy players, blacks or Arabs. Little white ones like mine…” [26]

24We find in this passage a constitutive dimension of the racialized vision of the social universe that Jean-Luc Chifflet has in common with other National Front voters: the belief in being a victim of “anti-French racism”, which explains many of the difficulties, failures and humiliations they experience. Thus, Jean-Luc Chifflet also seems convinced that his son is punished for being white:


“Just once, my kid did something stupid. They were ten boys and in the middle, a white kid. Who did they come and see? My boy! They had broken something. The owner came to see me. I said, ‘Why him? They were lots of them. Go see everyone else and then we’ll see.’ He was there in the middle, white! On top of that, he is very white.»

26This feeling of being a victim of a “foreign preference” is also very strongly evident in the words of those who seem convinced that “foreigners” have advantages in terms of benefits, or priority of access to social housing. Like other inhabitants of the Cosmonauts housing project, Jean-Luc Chifflet seems convinced that the social services in the city prefer to help immigrants rather than his family, which has always been French and has been Dionysian (from Saint Denis) for five generations.


“They do nothing for large families. There’s no help for that. What I say now will perhaps seem racist, but once, I went to social services. She said she couldn’t do anything for me. I said: “why? Do I need to be called Ben Ali or Bensoussan for that? ’ – ‘Yes, sir! We will do more for them than for others.’”

28Two years later, in front of the polling station, when he had recently become the father of a seventh child, he explained again that if he still lives in a small apartment, it is because one must be African to be offered anything better.

29It becomes easier to gauge the strength these ethnic and racial divisions have gained in a housing project like the Cosmonauts, when one realizes that they pervade the representations and discourses of individuals who, on the face of it, are little inclined to racism; for instance a young woman of 30, who is a former member of Communist Youth and is a single mother of two mixed-race children. She cites the “color of my skin” to explain her difficulties in integrating into the housing project to which she has just moved: “I am not accepted because of my skin color, my eye color. I am not Arab and am made to understand that. I suffer racism as a result of being white.”

30Éric Moreau shared quite similar experiences during the long interview he gave us the day before the 2008 municipal elections. We had known him in 2002 at a time when he had just finished his studies and was trying to start a career in journalism, writing for magazines about hip hop. Six years later, he continued to write for magazines (specializing in manga), even if he found it difficult to make a living as a result. He moved in with his partner, an Algerian national, and had found out two days previously that she was pregnant, which seemed to make him happy. To be accepted into her family he had converted to Islam, although he told us he considered himself an atheist. Very hostile to the FN, he nevertheless shared with us the anti-French racism he says he suffered in his youth in the Cosmonauts housing project.


Us: In terms of integration, did you feel that there was racism in the other direction?
Éric Moreau: To feel white?
Us: Yes.
Éric Moreau: Yes! Totally! And ever since I was little! Really, honestly since I was little! […] There was a Tunisian who said ‘Hey! You’re Tunisian! Go! Beat him up! You’re not gonna let yourself be done by a French guy!’ And right there, that stays in your mind. You say to yourself: ‘C’mon, what have I done? ’ But now I’m talking about when I was a kid. I was 8, 9 years old […]. You begin to realize there’s something against you […] you realize that there is a difference between you and the others. And after that, there may be a change of circumstances against you. Anti-white slurs… Sometimes, you get extorted for money because you’re white and because it’s thought that, inevitably, the French, they won’t defend themselves as well.”

32Later in the interview, while we ’re talking about a play currently running in Saint-Denis which addresses issues of colonialism, immigration and national identity, [27] he added:


“Today there’s a big identity problem. Because there are people who were walking around a few years ago wearing T-shirts that said ‘proud to be Moroccan, or Tunisian ’. Or when I see a black with an Africa symbol as a pendant necklace. But if I put on that kind of T-shirt, saying: ‘proud to be French ’, or wear a France symbol around my neck… well I’m going to get beaten up! So yes, there is a big identity problem.” [28]

A reversal of stigma

34In a housing project like the Cosmonauts, young French people of foreign origin share the victim identity with those they sometimes designate using the term “French-French”. They see themselves, too, as victims of their identity, and, in this case, of their “foreign” origins. Experiences of humiliation and discrimination are thus referred to repeatedly in the speech of young residents in the neighborhood. The emblematic case is the abusive police identity check, accompanied by a body search or by use of the intimate form of address in the second person ( “tu”). Such a check assigns, to those who undergo it, a form of “second class” citizenship. In February 2008, Élisa Justin, whom we had already met in 2007, and was then aged 22, [29] described for us, like many others, some common experiences of discrimination that she considered herself to have suffered:


Us: You’ve had problems with discrimination?
Élisa Justin: It’s not blatant. In fact, you’re never sure if it’s not simply paranoia.
Us: Do you feel it all the same?
Élisa Justin: Yeah I do, you know, when I go to Paris for example. In some neighborhoods, it’s horrible. In the sixteenth, the sixth arrondissements, you feel you’re not even allowed to be there. It’s their territory. Of course, the territory is for everyone. However, you’re made to feel that you’re not in the right place.
Us: What is it? The looks you get?
Élisa: It’s the looks, the fact that people begin to change places when you arrive. I say to myself: ‘What have I done? ’ I know I washed that morning. And when I looked at schools in Paris, it was the same. It was, ‘Yes, ma’am, but it’s not possible. ’
Us: That was when you did research on possible training schemes?
Élisa: I was looking for a BTS in corporate communication, but it’s a long time ago. I don’t remember too much about it. But I was not welcome in the same way as my boyfriend (who is of European origin), unless I said to him: ‘C’mon, speak to them. ’ They spoke differently, politely to him.”

36It’s not important, for our purposes here, whether these feelings of having been discriminated against, having suffered forms of stigma, are rooted or not in objective experiences (Élisa herself wondered “if it’s paranoia”). What matters most is feeling despised, feeling treated as a “second class” citizen, with the result that the categories of ethnicity or race are used to interpret many experiences and social interactions. In a neighborhood like the Cosmonauts (and probably throughout French society), people of foreign origin tend to internalize the rejection they face from a portion of the population and the discriminatory practices that may accompany that rejection. This predisposes them to interpret most of their social experiences within the same cognitive framework, and more so where those experiences have ended in failure, which is then lived as a form of humiliation. The internalization of this ethnicist perspective, learned from those who reject them, means that they are more likely to interpret all perceived failures in terms of “discrimination”: the lack of a response to a job application, a job interview that goes badly, a failed application for training in the BTS sector, the bad mood of a state administrative employee, an intimate form of verbal address deemed inappropriate or, alternatively, a glance or a stare felt to be racist or derogatory… In a tone not, ultimately, very different from their neighbors who consider themselves victims of “anti-French” discrimination, this cognitive framework helps maintain a minimum of self-esteem – by attributing to others the full responsibility for one’s failures and one’s social problems.

37But internalizing the ethnic-racialist view in which they ’re held can also lead young French people of African descent to effect a classic reversal of stigma: [30] they sometimes reclaim – loud and proud – the very “origins” they know to be stigmatized (by wearing the team jerseys of Morocco or Tunisia, or a map of Africa as a pendant around the neck, or by supporting the football team of their “home” country, or even through displaying their religious identity). Ethnicization thereby flourishes on the basis of a self-reinforcing circular dynamic. The ethnicist point of view of “native” French people is answered by “foreigners” with an assertion of identity with an ethnic dimension (an assertion sometimes accompanied by hostility to the “Gauls”). This, in turn, re-confirms the “natives” in their ethnicist views. One consequence of this dynamic is to introduce a split identity into the heart of working-class areas, and thereby to promote a process of ghettoization on an ethno-racial basis, particularly due to the exit strategies implemented by the so-called “native” French.

38Racism or ethnic hatred are not new phenomena in working-class milieus (just as they are not in the rest of society). But the old working-class culture, organized around a “class identity” could favor identification with a social group (the “workers”), based on the division between “workers” and “bosses”, or even simply between the “little” people and the “big” people. This cognitive framework was not intended to establish symbolic boundaries within working-class neighborhoods. In contrast, the ethnically based cognitive framework described above carries with it a fundamental principle of division within the working classes: between “French” and “foreigners” above all, and to a lesser extent, between different “ethnic” and “racial” groups.

39The result of all this is a difficulty, experienced by many young French people of foreign origin, to see themselves as full citizens. This is specifically because it is difficult for them to identify fully with a community that is represented, in their neighborhood (and also sometimes at their places of work), [31] by individuals who do not recognize French people of foreign origin as equals. This difficulty in considering oneself fully “French”, felt by many French people of foreign origin, was remarkably well reproduced for us by Mehdi Wahbi, when he describe for us what he felt at the time of his first vote: “It was strange, as a young person from the neighborhood, with North African origins, to be entitled to vote. I consider myself French. But, with my name, it looks a bit weird.” [32]

40From this standpoint it is significant that all the young French people of foreign origin we met in the Cosmonauts, without exception, referred to the “French” and even, for some of them, the “French-French” when seeking to describe those of their friends or neighbors who are “white” and who come from families that have been French for several generations already. This simple use of language, quite common among the youth of the housing projects, reveals to what extent they do not feel “French” in their own right. It is also indicative of a trend towards the ethnicization, or even the racialization of national identity that the term “French” is mobilized to refer to neighbors or colleagues with whom the speaker nonetheless shares the same nationality.

A link between voting and origins that is difficult to represent statistically

41In all likelihood, this change in cognitive schemas, and in the logic of identity production associated with them, influences electoral choices. It is nevertheless difficult to establish and, more importantly, to measure the relationship between cognitive schemata with an ethno-racial dimension on the one hand, and electoral preferences on the other. First, the electoral spectrum is complex and, in a country like France, only the National Front openly promotes and exploits a national-ethnic cleavage, which that party has made the linchpin of its political identity. But this does not preclude other organizations and other candidates from raising issues with potentially high ethnicist content, or from sending signals that derive their meaning from the context of national-ethnic divides. [33] During the last presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have prospered electorally by playing on this divide, through his statements about “sheep slaughtered in the bathtub”, [34] his invitation “to leave France” aimed at “those who do not love this country”, or even his valorization of a “national identity”, which as we know has today acquired an ethnicist, or even racist connotation in the dominant cognitive frameworks of the high-rise suburban housing projects.

42Moreover, the electoral spectrum is not simply a matter of the explicit content of political platforms. It also refers to the individual candidates themselves, who are expected to mobilize support through identification with the people. Traditionally in France, candidates for the workers ’ parties were themselves from working-class backgrounds. But recently the attention to candidates ’ ethnic background or skin color, with the stated goal of ensuring a more representative set of candidates and a representative level of “diversity” in the political arena, can also be read as an indicator of the ethnicization of selection criteria within parties. [35] Finally, the success of the UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, during the last presidential election, shows how difficult it can be to establish a relationship between a tendency towards the ethnicization of society on the one hand, and election results on the other. There is no indication, in this case, that the decline of the National Front in recent elections (whether temporary or definitive) can be interpreted as evidence of a decline in wider social trends towards ethnicization or racialization (though this is a hypothesis that must obviously be explored). [36] Moreover, there is no equivalent to the National Front party in the United States, though ethnic divisions and tensions continue to be a fact of American society and the existence of a vote divided along ethnic lines seems fairly well established. [37]

43The other difficulty lies in the fact that voters ’ identities are not one-dimensional and, in this case, are not just structured around categories of ethnicity. [38] Moreover, these categories do not make sense except in relation to individuals ’ other characteristics. So, to portray the social-psychological logics that produce electoral choices in a truly realistic way, all the individual, positional and relational characteristics of the agents studied should be taken into account. It is therefore essential to emphasize that the relationship to origins must be analyzed in relation to other factors that may exert determining influences on behavior in general, and on electoral practices in particular.

44Finally we must add that, since racist views are socially stigmatized, they are particularly difficult to grasp through the research technologies of most conventional surveys, such as questionnaires and, very often, the interview – even more so when the latter is organized and conducted in a formal setting. Respondents tend, as we know, to hide opinions they know to be associated with forms of social condemnation (either by refusing to participate in surveys, or through outright concealment), or else to euphemize them. The advantage of studies done through local observation, such as ours in the Cosmonauts project, lies in being able to accurately identify the selection bias and/or declaration bias that affect the various investigative techniques, foremost among them the exit poll questionnaire (EPQ), which we use to identify voter characteristics. This is what allows an effective comparison between the questionnaires we produced, the voter lists, and the election results recorded through the polling station itself.

45While more than half of voters for Ségolène Royal or Olivier Besancenot agreed to contribute to our EPQ in the first round of the 2007 presidential election, only 11% of those who voted for Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Marie Le Pen were willing to participate in the same survey (Table 1) [39] .

Table 1

Rate of responses (in %) based on candidates – EPQ 1st round of presidential election 2007

Table 1
Candidates Percentage of votes won (Cosmonauts polling station) Rate of response (Cosmonauts polling station) Royal 47 52.6 (n = 120) Besancenot 6 51.7 (n = 15) Bayrou 17.5 47.1 (n = 40) Sarkoky 15.1 11 (n = 8) Le Pen 9.3 11.1 (n = 5) All 12 candidates 100 41.9 (n = 203)

Rate of responses (in %) based on candidates – EPQ 1st round of presidential election 2007

46Such selection bias can be explained both by the social characteristics of the voters and by the prevailing norms in an environment such as the Cosmonauts. We may, of course, interpret the very low response rate registered among voters for the UMP candidate (and the FN candidate) as a mark of the illegitimacy of such votes in a district where anti-Sarkozyism is very pronounced, especially among the younger people, who occupy a dominant position in public space. These very low levels in the results no doubt also reflect concealment strategies, implemented by voters who know they are a minority in an environment that is mostly opposed, and even hostile, to their point of view. But the response rate should also be linked to the socio-demographic properties of different electoral constituencies. Older people are traditionally resistant to participation in the EPQ. This was especially the case in the Cosmonauts, where comparison with the signatures of voters, taken directly from the voter lists in the first round of the 2007 presidential election, revealed response rates to the EPQ that varied strongly between different age groups. Much as the EPQ managed to reach the majority of voters under 35, it nonetheless proved to be a technology essentially unable to reach the oldest electors in the housing project (Table 2).

Table 2

Rate of response by age group – EPQ 1st round of 2007 presidential election – Cosmonauts polling station

Table 2
Age group Number of voters Number of EPQ participants Response rate (%) 18 -25 91 71 78.0 26 -35 101 59 58.4 36 -45 124 52 41.9 46-55 64 26 40.6 56 -65 51 9 17.6 Over 66 56 7 12.5 Total 487 224 46.0

Rate of response by age group – EPQ 1st round of 2007 presidential election – Cosmonauts polling station

47Finally, to complete this framework, we must point out that age groups and backgrounds tended to overlap: the youngest registered voters (18-35 years) were overwhelmingly French of first or second generation African immigrant origin, while the oldest (over 46) were instead mostly French of European origin (in most cases so-called “native” French).

Table 3

Distribution, by age group and origins, of those registered at the polling station in the Cosmonauts housing project (period 2007-2010, source: voter lists)

Table 3
Age group European origins (as %) Maghrebi Origins (as %) Sub-Saharan African origins ( %) 18-25 (n = 104) 37.5 43.3 19.2 26-35 (n = 111) 22.5 577 19.8 36-45 (n = 153) 52.3 41.2 6.5 46-55 (n = 74) 59.5 25.7 14.9 56-65 (n = 55) 69.1 23.6 7.3 Over 66 (n = 69) 89.9 8.7 1.4 Total (n = 566) 50.9 37.1 12.0

Distribution, by age group and origins, of those registered at the polling station in the Cosmonauts housing project (period 2007-2010, source: voter lists)

48This situation raises a number of methodological difficulties. Given the force of social factors in influencing (non-)participation in surveys, our EPQ can establish the characteristics of left-wing voters, but makes it impossible to compare them on equal terms with right-wing voters. As a result, it is only through deduction that we can distinguish the distinct profiles of the voters in the housing project. While the youngest voters in a neighborhood like the Cosmonauts are mostly of immigrant African origin, and vote almost exclusively for the left (or for the centrist François Bayrou in the 2007 presidential election), voters for Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Marie Le Pen were recruited mainly among older people, and consisted mainly of the so-called “native” French. Half of voters who refused to fill in our questionnaire were over 46 years old, while this age group represents only a third of those who went to the polls on 22 April 2007.

49These voters combine characteristics that are known to be traditionally unfavorable to the use of an EPQ – older people who are politically on the right – but these voters are also, in the context of the Cosmonauts, even more reluctant to cooperate in our survey, because they operate in an environment where they are a minority and in which they may feel, as we have seen, ostracized. The direct observation we conducted in the area largely confirmed this finding. By comparing the results of the eight rounds of voting that took place from 2002 to 2005 with the apparent profile of voters who refused to answer our EPQ, as noted in our observation notes, it is possible to deduce an approximate portrait of right-wing and National Front voters: they are whites (three-quarters of whom refused to answer our EPQ); and are relatively old (two-thirds of those who refused to answer were over 40 years old). [40]

When the ethnicization of the social world collides with electoral choice

50Direct observation, interviews in the neighborhood and analysis of EPQs and voter lists: all confirm that it is among the oldest registered voters of European origin that the bulk of votes for the right and the extreme right are found. Furthermore, this segment of the population’s notable exodus from the neighborhood allows us to understand how the FN declined from record electoral performances in the decade from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s (winning up to 45% in the second round of legislative elections of 1993), to a level slightly below the party’s national average in the period from the early 2000s onward. Interviews that we were gradually able to obtain with a number of the National Front voters in the housing project invariably confirmed the extent to which their electoral choices are made, as has been previously described, in a cognitive framework primarily organized around the categories of racism and ethnicity. [41] But in the Cosmonauts in recent years there have been other voting patterns created within logics of electoral behavior strongly marked by an ethnic dimension. Thus on 21 April 2002, Christiane Taubira (Radical Left Party) got 10.6% of the votes cast in the housing project’s polling station.

51Neither was this an isolated case in the suburbs north of Paris. Some municipalities of Seine-Saint-Denis gave Christiane Taubira among her best results in metropolitan France: 10% of the votes cast in Bobigny, 8.3% in Stains, 7.6% in Saint-Denis; Villepinte gave her 7.1% and Bondy 7.1%, as did Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. However, the evidence we obtained in the Cosmonauts, through the observation of the election day and by consulting voter lists, seemed to indicate that this vote was essentially due to the Antillean families who live in the district in large numbers. In an environment where voters followed the campaign from a great distance, did not know much about the Radical Left Party and were ignorant of most of that party’s platform, it was above all the personal identity of a black woman from Guyana that marked the minds of voters and that eventually garnered their support or even personal identification with her. It is significant that voters of Caribbean origin, although they typically pay little attention to political communication, were able to declare their preference for Christiane Taubira as early as the telephone survey that we conducted in February 2002, when her likely candidacy was still known only to insiders.

52Louise Justin, from a family originally from Martinique, who works at the post office, is one of those voters who, from the outset, declared to us her firm intention to vote Taubira. Although in her own words “not a fan of politics”, this 44-year-old practicing Catholic, who votes only intermittently, stopped us when we asked her to choose from the list of declared candidates: “Catherine Taubira [sic]… I want to vote for the woman from Martinique. That will make a change for once.” Two months later, when we contacted her again, she confirmed her intention to vote for her “compatriot”. So this voter, who describes herself as “neither left nor right”, seemed primarily sensitive to the community of origin that connects her to the candidate, even pushing this identification so far as to suggest that Taubira too is from Martinique. [42] Five years later, we return to the topic of the candidacy of Christiane Taubira with Élisa, the daughter of Louise Justin. Taubira did not seem to have lost her power of attraction:


Us: And five years ago, there was Christiane Taubira, could you have voted for her?
Élisa Justin: I could have, but I knew there would not be enough people who would vote for her, so…
Us: But around here, she got quite a few votes?
Élisa Justin: She did, that’s what I heard anyway. It’s even said she could have given some to
Jospin because she got a big percentage.
Us: And do you feel something special for her?
Élisa Justin: Oh yes. For one thing, she’s a woman. And besides, she’s black.
Us: That does something for you?
Élisa: Oh yes!
Us: You would vote for her?
Élisa: Yes, she’s convincing. And she represents us. She’s better situated to talk about the problems we encounter and that others don’t.” [43]

54That voters for Taubira were mainly Caribbean also seems to be confirmed by the results from different polling stations in the Saint-Denis area. These were the areas known to house numerous families from the French overseas territories and departments that voted most heavily in favor of the deputy from French Guyana: 12.2% at the polling station in the Auguste Renoir High School; 14.1% at the polling station in the René Descartes High School and 14.5% in the polling station in the Floreal housing estate, compared to only 4.1% in the polling station in the city center, located in the town hall of Saint-Denis.

55Studying the corresponding voter lists provides results that confirm this interpretive framework. The polling station in the Cosmonauts of course includes a large population originating from overseas since, in 2002, one registered voter in ten (9.6%) was born in the overseas departments and territories. And voters from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana and Reunion are in fact even more numerous than such figures suggest, since they also include the children born to this population in mainland France. Analysis of the electoral lists shows that registered voters from the DOM-TOM were much better mobilized in the first round of the presidential election than were the rest of voters at this station: a 72.3% share, against 59.4% on average (Table 4).

Table 4

Participation rate of registered voters with origins in the DON-TOM compared with the participation rate for all those registered at this polling station[44]

Table 4
Registered with origins in the DOM-TOM (n = 47) Whole polling station in the Cosmonauts (n = 490) 2002 Presidential election, first round 72.3 59.4 2002 Presidential election, second round 68.1 69.8 Parliamentary elections 2002, first round 44.7 47.10 Parliamentary elections 2002, second round 34 41.2

Participation rate of registered voters with origins in the DON-TOM compared with the participation rate for all those registered at this polling station[44]

56It’s hard not to see a “Taubira effect” here, since this population usually participates at a lower rate than the average among registered voters. Moreover, it’s quite revealing that these voters from the DOM-TOM “de-mobilized” somewhat in the second round of the presidential election, in a wider context of high political intensity [45] which saw a re-mobilization of the general population. It is also revealing that this segment of the electorate was particularly prone to abstention in the second round of the parliamentary elections: only 34% participated, compared with 41.2% on average. [46] There was thus a very large drop – of nearly 40 points – in their participation between 21 April 2002, when Christiane Taubira was in the race, and 16 June 2002.

57It is therefore very likely that a logic of identification with an ethnic dimension characterized voting for Christiane Taubira. [47] Of course, not all the votes for her – 10.6% of the total – came exclusively from voters with origins in the DOM-TOM. [48] We met, after the election, young French people of North African origin who also said they voted for the parliamentary deputy from Guyana. But it is precisely our point that their stated motives were not very different from those formulated by Élisa or Louise Justin. This is because it was essentially her status as a black woman that was noted and retained, and not what was in her speeches and professions of political faith. Thus, Jennifer Boualem, whose mother is of Algerian origin, explained the matter as follows:


“Why not a black woman? I thought it was normal, because there are many immigrants living in France. Most are from North Africa, or from the Caribbean. I find it normal to have someone of color that stands for election.” [49]

59Two years later, the European elections of spring 2004 provided another example of voting in which the ethnic dimension appeared to be one of the explanatory factors. On this occasion there was a slate of candidates whose sole stated position was the defense of the Palestinian cause. [50] In a context of very low turnout (28.6%) it got 14% of the votes cast in the Cosmonauts. This result cannot be blamed on the presence of sectarian organizations influencing the community. There is no Islamic religious association proselytizing in this housing project and the relative success of such movements in other projects in the Saint-Denis area has never been matched in the Cosmonauts. [51] Without such an organization in place, it is more likely that this vote was the result of an encounter between, on the one hand, predispositions pre-established over the course of several years – a demand for representation that had gone unsatisfied and that was made clear, for example, by some voters having stapled Palestinian flags to their ballot papers on 21 April 2002 – and, on the other hand, an electoral opportunity that was not much present in the media but that was actively promoted within public space in Saint-Denis; for instance through leafleting and discussion in the market, through the presence of lots of posters and stickers in the town, or through meetings, in the presence of the candidate Dieudonné M ’bala M ’bala, at the University of Saint-Denis.

60The segment of the housing project’s population that would be most attracted to this candidacy consisted of young people of North African origin who were on the left politically. The exit poll questionnaires can be used to establish this precisely, because the response rate among voters for this slate of candidates – 17 out of 20 – was so high that it allows us to clearly identify the socio-political profile of those who contributed to this vote. They were mainly more integrated young people – students or workers – who were much more politicized than average and whose political preferences were oriented to the left (Table 5).

61In a low-intensity election like the European elections, it was a fraction of the core electorate of the left that, in this case, abandoned the classic options – socialists, communists, or far left – in favor of the Euro-Palestine slate. This choice seems to make sense in the context of an overall lack of representation that tends, here, to manifest itself partly through categories of ethnicity. This hole is felt and expressed quite explicitly by some young people of foreign origin. Thus, Icham Youssef, a regular voter of 24, explained with some vehemence in front of the polling station on 5 May 2002 his feeling of not being represented: “no one represents us, so… I do not see why I would vote for a party that does not represent me. I am young and from an immigrant background…”. Consequently, voting for the “pro-Palestinian” list may offer a way to partially overcome this lack of representation by supporting the cause of a population with which such voters consider themselves to share the same origin, the same culture and – no less important – a single identity of those oppressed by relegation and stigmatization. [52]

Table 5

Profile of voters for the Euro-Palestine slate (n = 17)

Table 5
Average Age 28 years State they are "very left wing" or "left wing" 12 Have obtained the baccalaureate 15 Have studied at tertiary level 12 OCCUPATION Students 4 Managers 4 Employees 5 Unemployed 3 Manual workers 1

Profile of voters for the Euro-Palestine slate (n = 17)

The ethnic factor and the polarization of voting

62Beyond limited cases such as the Taubira vote or the Euro-Palestine vote, the production of electoral preferences in the Cosmonauts, as is probably the case in most working-class areas, seems at least partially influenced by logics of identification that include an ethnic dimension. Therefore, taking into account these logics, it is possible to create a deliberately stylized representation of this electoral space: one that allows us to better represent the patterns of the distribution of votes in such environments.

At opposite ends of this space, two poles are clearly identifiable.

63At one of these poles are those French who are first or second generation African immigrants. This population, usually relatively young, leans very much to the left [53] when it mobilizes. Their voting choice does not obey an exclusively ethnic logic. Interviews conducted in the Cosmonauts show that the “social issue” remains a cornerstone of identity for those on the political left in this type of neighborhood. [54] Even today, something remains of that dualist representation of the social world, split between “bosses” and “workers”; it is one which, among the least politicized or the youngest, takes the form of an opposition between the “little” and “big”, the “poor” and “rich”, the “projects” and “Paris”. Like many others, Latifa Djaout, a 40-year old of Algerian origin, an activity leader in a leisure center in the housing project, establishes a link between a political identity on the left and defense of the working class:


“I’m on the left, certainly not the right. The left is for the working classes, the little people; it is not for the rich in my view. The right is for those with means and who want to increase those means.” [55]

65But leftist identity and voting are also inscribed, for many voters, in an electoral logic with an ethnic dimension. Within this population of African immigrants, the political right and extreme right are in fact largely perceived to be hostile to “foreigners”, while the left is deemed to be more favorable towards them. [56] Whether in 2002 or 2007, this was one of the reasons that led the vast majority of voters who have origins in African immigration to vote for candidates on the political left, or for Jacques Chirac in order to block Jean-Marie Le Pen. In this regard, Nicolas Sarkozy has become a factor of polarization and electoral mobilization. His perceived identity as ‘police chief ’ (an institution believed to generate discrimination), his statements about the “hosing down” of the housing project known as the “4000” (located just across from the Cosmonauts), [57] or his use of terminology such as “scum”, have all encouraged voting logics with an ethnic dimension and have reinforced the identity-based convictions of French youth of foreign origin. It is also noteworthy that among Muslim voters who responded to our exit poll questionnaires in the first round of the presidential election in 2007 (103 out of 150 voters claimed a religious affiliation) none reported having voted in favor of the future president of the Republic.

66Based on this spectacular result, two hypotheses are possible: either no French Muslim voted for Nicolas Sarkozy in this district, or no French Muslim was prepared to disclose, including through an anonymous questionnaire structured so as to preserve the secrecy of the opinions stated, [58] a vote for the UMP candidate (whether by refusing to participate in the investigation at all, or by concealing his/her actual electoral decision). But whatever the true hypothesis, the fact that the questionnaire recorded no votes among this segment of the population for Nicolas Sarkozy on 22 April 2007 shows to what extent such a vote can be perceived locally as illegitimate, more particularly among Muslim voters who are also, in almost all cases, French of African descent. [59]

67It was also primarily to block access to the Elysée for Sarkozy, a candidate whose remarks were seen as dismissive and hostile with a racist connotation, that the mobilization for voter registration reached a record level in the Cosmonauts, as in other comparable districts. It was for this reason that subsequent voting by the youth of the housing projects was so heavily focused on the socialist candidate. [60] On this side of the electoral space, the “ethnic” dimension was rather more defensive and reactive, in that it emerged in response to views among some “native” French that were considered hostile and stigmatizing. At the other pole were “French-French” voters, to borrow the term used by some residents. An ethno-racialist, anti-foreigner perspective characterized these “French-French”. As a group they sought to escape the high-rise housing projects from the moment these spaces began to receive large populations of people of foreign origin, particularly coming from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these “French-French” remain today as “prisoners of the city”, because they lack sufficient resources to relocate, but many of them are now installed in low-rise suburban and periurban residential areas. Such people are the ideal-typical figure of the vote on ethnic lines. Their hostility to “foreigners”, amplified in combination with their demand for order and security, [61] places the majority of their votes on the right and the extreme right. In the area of representation, the National Front has been the main promoter of this type of vote along ethnic lines, and has managed to help it thrive for more than two decades. In recent years, Nicolas Sarkozy has also established a discourse on this topic and has sent out messages that help to activate this divide and to mobilize a portion of the electorate around issues relating to “national identity”. Thereby he has managed to capture some of the National Front’s votes. Our survey confirms that in the Cosmonauts this operation was successful in 2007. The fraction of voters in the housing project that is characterized by a strong propensity to racism and ethnic hatred was a component of the electoral coalition that delivered electoral victory to Nicolas Sarkozy. [62]

An ethnic dimension that allows us better to understand the logics of voting?

68In conclusion, the observations we made in the Cosmonauts raise questions about the heuristic potential of approaches accounting for changes in voting behavior among urban working-class populations, and even in the rest of society, by attending to the dimension of origins and the logics of voting on ethnic lines. We studied a high-rise housing project, which leads us to formulate hypotheses first off regarding the working classes, but there is no a priori reason to assume that the racialization of cognitive schemata and the ethnic voting divide is confined to the masses. Assuming forms and modes of activation of different kinds, it is likely that the middle and upper classes are also affected by logics of identity production, in which a racial or ethnic dimension to voting is an important component.

69On these issues, academic research has made scant progress and we can only proceed on the basis of hypotheses that are subjected to proper control. But the sparse data already available indicates how this type of inquiry deserves further scholarly investigation. Thus, when looking in aggregate at a database of election results from polling stations located in ZUS [ “sensitive urban zones”] neighborhoods that are comparable to the Cosmonauts, in that they incorporate a large foreign population, and therefore, logically – through the mechanisms of jus soli – a large number of French youths of African origin, we observe that the electoral balance of power is still heavily in favor of the left. This is shown by the results recorded on 6 May 2007 among a sample of polling stations located in ZUS that we selected because they were in districts where the proportion of foreigners exceeded 25% of the total population in the census of 1999 (Table 6). [63]

Table 6

Results of the second round of the 2007 presidential elections in 17 ZUS including more than 25% foreigners

Table 6
Department Commune ZUS name % of foreigners in the ZUS % of vote for Ségolène Royal 69 Vaulx-en-Velin Ex S.U. P., Grappinière, Petit Pont 25 72.8 67 Strasbourg Neuhof (Cités) 25.3 63.9 75 Paris Belleville 25.6 73.2 94 Créteil Hauts du Mont Mesly 26.6 66.4 75 Paris Fontaine au Roi 26.6 70.5 69 Bron Terraillon 26.7 71.3 8 Fumay Le Charnois 27.2 63.9 67 Strasbourg Cronenbourg (Cit Nuclaire) 27.6 66.1 34 Montpellier La aillade 28.6 62.9 91 Grigny Grigny 2 30.1 62.5 93 Saint Denis Les Francs Moisins, Bel Air 31.2 68,1 57 BehrenForbach La Cité 31.6 65.6 93 Aubervilliers Villette, uatre Chemins 32. 64.2 92 Gennevilliers Les Grsillons 32.1 75.6 75 Paris La Goutte d’Or 32.7 76.8 71 Chalon sur Sa ne Fontaine au Loup, Le Stade 39.8 91.7 34 Montpellier Le etit Bard, Pergola 54.6 73.2

Results of the second round of the 2007 presidential elections in 17 ZUS including more than 25% foreigners

70In these districts classed as ZUS, Ségolène Royal’s score ranged from a low of 62.5% to a maximum of 91.7%. On average, she won 69.9 % of the votes cast. These results are remarkably close to those recorded in the Cosmonauts, where the socialist candidate won 71.6% of the vote. It will, of course, be necessary to control this result over a larger number of cases and for the relative weight of the different factors that can be identified (age, employment status, educational level, income level, etc), before we can establish the specific weight of “origins” in the matter of electoral preferences.

71Similarly, the use of representative polls should allow for better control of the possible relationships between “origins” on the one hand and electoral choices on the other. It will suffice here to note that the data already available confirms the interest that there may be in exploring this type of problem more systematically. Thus, surveys conducted during the last two presidential elections show how the votes of French people of non-European origin tend to favor the left. An exit poll conducted on 21 April 2002 established that 69% of “French people with at least one line of foreign parentage from North Africa and Turkey” voted for a candidate of the left, compared to only 40% of “French without foreign parentage”. [64] Similarly, a survey of “voting intentions”, conducted in March 2007, suggested that 85% of French voters of African descent intended to vote for Ségolène Royal in the event of a second round pitting her against Nicolas Sarkozy. [65]

72The data produced in the French “political barometer” (BPF) survey of 2006-2007 provide similar results. [66] The advantage of this survey is that it comprises a series of questions designed to establish whether respondents had foreign parents or grandparents and, if need be, requiring them to specify their origins. And indeed, in this case too it appears that French voters of African origin lean heavily toward the political left.

Table 7

Geographic origins of parents of voters and non-weighted voting intentions in the first round of the 2007 presidential election (source: Baromètre politique français, 4th wave, February 4-18 2007)[67]

Table 7
Intention of vote in first round of 2007 presidential election Left Center Right Extreme Total Right Geographic origin of voters’parents Africa Number 124 23 19 4 170 % 72.9 13.5 11.2 2.4 100.0 No foreign parentage Number 1464 595 1,353 207 3,619 % 40.5 16.4 37.4 5.7 100.0 Total Number 1,588 618 1,372 211 3,789 % 41.9 16.3 36.2 5.6 100.0

Geographic origins of parents of voters and non-weighted voting intentions in the first round of the 2007 presidential election (source: Baromètre politique français, 4th wave, February 4-18 2007)[67]

Chi-squared Test

tableau im8
Value ddl Asymptotic signification (bilateral) .000 Pearson Chi-Squared 75.844a 3 a. 0 cells (.0 %) have a theoretical effective lower than 5. The minimum theoretical effective is 9.47.

Chi-squared Test

73Such findings are again insufficient to allow us to consider the issue of origins as one of the determinants of electoral orientation. Voters of African descent have, in fact, other characteristics that distinguish them from the rest of the electorate. They are on average younger, from poorer class backgrounds and live more frequently in housing projects. This is why future studies should also seek to establish what their age or social status means for their left-wing orientation. From this point of view, it would also be interesting to measure whether social mobility modifies the orientation of those voters who benefit from it. [68] Similar questions should be asked for the so-called “native” French. Ultimately, this will help us to determine whether taking a voter’s origins into account allows us to better identify the changes observed in recent decades in the electoral practice in the working classes, among others. For instance, the decline of class-based voting may in fact be explained by the emergence and consolidation of voting with an ethnic dimension, something experienced by, and divisive of, the working classes in particular. Such a development, if true, should lead us to understand the analysis of electoral choices differently. It would call, in fact, for an approach that combined the traditional sociological variables (social-professional category, age, educational level) with other variables, so as to better take into account both the objective dimensions and, even more so, the subjective dimensions of “ethnic identity” and thus to analyze more realistically the logics of production that affect electoral choices.


  • [1]
    This study is part of a wider research project based on a dozen voting stations and financed by the National Research Agency(ANR) as part of the PAECE project (Pour une approche écologique des comportements électoraux [Towards an ecological analysis of electoral behavior] (ANR-06-BLAN-0017). The survey conducted in the Cosmonauts project led to the publication of a book specifically devoted to voter turnout: Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen, La démocratie de l’abstention. Aux origines de la démobilisation électorale en milieu populaire (Paris: Gallimard, 2007).
  • [2]
    The notions of racism and ethnicity are frequently confused, in social life as in scientific analysis. If racism means to explain behavioral differences through race, identified by physical characteristics, first and foremost among which is the color of the skin, ethnicity refers more to the supposed cultural characteristics of a population (language, religion, a set of social practices). On these issues: D. McCrone, The Sociology of Nationalism (London and New York: Routledge, 1998); S. Malesevic and M. Haugaard (eds), Making Sense of Collectivity: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Globalization (London: Pluto Press, 2004); J. Hutchinson and A. D. Smith (eds), Ethnicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Kristian Karner, Ethnicity and Everyday Life (London, New York: Routledge, 2007). The cognitive schemata identified in our study sometimes deployed ethnic criteria in the characterization of a group, sometimes racial criteria, sometimes both at once, such as when, for example, justifications were offered by reference to cultural differences: ( “they are dirty”, “they are racist”) but also by reference to differences in the color of the skin ( “they” being, in fact, implicitly, blacks, and the “racists” whites).
  • [3]
    Rawi Abdelal, Yoshiko M. Herrera, Alastair Iain Johnston and Rose MacDermott, “Identity as Variable”, in Rawi Abdelal, Yoshiko M. Herrera, Alastair Iain Johnston and Rose MacDermott (eds), Measuring Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 17-32; Laura L. Adams, “Techniques for Measuring Identity in Ethnographic Research”, in Measuring Identity, 316-41; Rogers Brubaker, Margit Feischmidt, Jon Foyn and Liana Grancea, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
  • [4]
    Guy Michelat, “Sur l’utilisation de l’entretien non directif en sociologie”, Revue française de sociologie, 16(2), 1975, 229-47. The methodology most commonly implemented today, notably in cognitive work, continues to be experiments which are designed to identify the psychological processes at work in the perception of oneself and others, and the effects these processes can induce, particularly in the area of voting behavior. See, for example, Paul M. Sniderman, Louk Hagendoorn and Markus Prior, “Predisposing factors and situational triggers: exclusionary reactions to immigrant minorities”, American Political Science Review, 98(1), 2004, 35-49.Online
  • [5]
    The perspective used here is broadly inspired by the idea of mental maps, as used by certain authors writing in a cognitivist tradition. The work of Rogers Brubaker, in this respect, represents a turning point in the analysis of identity. See Rogers Brubaker, Maria Loveman and Peter Stamatov, “Ethnicity as cognition”, Theory and Society, 33(1), 2004, 31-64 and Brubaker et al., Transylvanian Town.
  • [6]
    On this issue see: Raymond E. Wolfinger, “The development and persistence of ethnic voting”, American Political Science Review, 59(4), 1965, 896-908; and Martin Plax, “Uncovering ambiguities in some uses of the concept of ethnic voting”, Midwest Journal of Political Science, 15(3), 1971, 571-82.Online
  • [7]
    This rebalancing is not a feature of the Cosmonauts neighborhood, where the electoral balance of power remains largely favorable to the left, but must be understood by incorporating other environments into the analysis, such as periurban communities or low-rise suburbs, as well as working-class neighborhoods with social and demographic characteristics other than those of the housing project studied in this article. This rebalancing can be identified in studies based on polls, where it becomes clear that there has been a shift in working-class areas from a balance of electoral power very favorable to the left in the late 1970s, to a relative balance of votes between left, right and the National Front in the early 2000s.
  • [8]
    The names of the inhabitants of the Cosmonauts housing project have been changed to ensure the anonymity of those whose testimony we use.
  • [9]
    It is worth noting how religion, in this case Islam, operates for many agents as a marker of “ethnicity”, bound indissolubly to other properties such as “origin”, “skin color” and supposed modes of behavior that are more or less valued or stigmatized, depending on the position and perspective of the actors in question.
  • [10]
    A powerful and traditional distinction in the USA, due to the role played by ethnic divides in its political and social history: (see, for instance, Angus Campbell, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller and Donald E. Stokes, The American Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); Philip E. Converse, “The nature of belief systems in mass publics”, in David Apter (ed.), Ideology and Discontent (New York: Free Press, 1964); Pamela Conover, “The influence of group identifications on political perception and evaluation”, Journal of Politics, 46, August 1984, 760-85. The ethnicist dimension of French “symbolic systems” in the contemporary period remains, by contrast, mainly unexplored.
  • [11]
    If the category of “foreigners” can be defined in opposition to the “French”, it does not, all the same, mean a group of individuals attributing to itself a common identity and perceiving themselves as belonging to the same group. The categories of ethnicity are in fact, forces for division among the “foreigners” themselves. This is what seems to be revealed by the testimony of a young girl whose parents are from the French overseas territories and who describes her experience of racism in junior high school [collège] as follows:
    Us: You’ve already heard explicitly racist comments?
    Élisa: Yes, of course, at school above all, not here but more at junior high school and at high school [lycée].
    Us: And who made these comments?
    Élisa: Well, it’s a taboo, but most of those making such comments were of Maghrebi origin. […]. I promise you: it’s mostly those people who make such comments, and it’s a taboo. People should talk about it more. […] I’ve heard: “dirty black!” Ah yes! And sometimes you don’t know how to react”. Interview with Élisa, March 2007.
  • [12]
    This political party has worked for more than two decades now to impose an idea of “national identity” based on ethnic background.
  • [13]
    Interview with Élisa Justin, March 2007.
  • [14]
    Marie Cartier, Isabelle Coutant, Olivier Masclet and Yasmine Siblot, La France despetits-moyens. Enquête sur la banlieue pavillonnaire (Paris: La Découverte, 2008).
  • [15]
    Michele Tribalat, in the interview survey she conducted in Dreux in the 1990s, noted already at that time that no statistical tool existed to measure those changes in population which led to a “racialization of the territories”: Dreux. Voyage au cœur du malaise français (Paris: Syros, 1999).
  • [16]
    Centre d’analyse stratégique, Actes du colloque Statistiques Ethniques, 19 October 2006.
  • [17]
    Given the lack of information about the “origins” of citizens of French nationality, coding names is one of the only methods available to try to identify the “origins” of registered voters. Dominique Schnapper and Sylvie Strudel have, for example, already used it in “Le ‘vote juif ’ en France”, Revue française de science politique, 33(6), 1983, 933-61. The names found on the voter lists were coded according to whether their origin was “European”, “Maghrebi” or “Sub-Saharan African”. This coding allowed us to take into account almost all of the individuals present on the lists between 1974 and 2009 (individuals not within the three categories were only a marginal fraction of those registered during this period). Despite the inaccuracies involved in this method (a “European” name and surname can, for example, go with West Indian or even African origins), and provided we do not fetishize the percentages produced, this practice allows us to objectify and identify the major socialdemographic trends at work in a polling station like that in the housing project of the Cosmonauts, especially the increasingly majority presence of French people of African origin on the registered voters list.Online
  • [18]
    This local collapse of National Front support also coincided with the closure, in 1999, of a local police barracks whose occupants were registered at the polling station of the housing project. This suggests that many of them voted for the FN.
  • [19]
    Agnès Villechaise, who studied the Hauts de Garonne neighborhood near Bordeaux in the middle of the 1990s, recorded the same desire to flee a housing project in which the original population now felt they had become prisoners. See her “La banlieue sans qualités. Absence d’identité collective dans les grands ensembles”, Revue française de sociologie, 38, 1997, 351-74.Online
  • [20]
    Interview with Christine, May 2008.
  • [21]
    A nostalgia also evident among the pioneers of the low-rise, suburban district of Peupliers, which was faced with some similar trends. The following authors show that in that area this nostalgia was somewhat baffling, since consultation of the historical record in the archives reveals anything but the legendary neighborliness of the early years. Marie Cartier, Isabelle Coutant, Olivier Masclet and Yasmine Siblot, La France desPetits-Moyens”.
  • [22]
    Discussion with Victor Bonigal, in front of the school, between the two rounds of the presidential election of 2002.
  • [23]
    Abdelmalek Sayad, La double absence. Des illusions aux souffrances de l’immigré (Paris: Seuil, 1999).
  • [24]
    Florence Haegel, “L’expression xénophobe dans une cité de banlieue: le modèle de l’hospitalité dévoyée”, in Florence Haegel, Henri Rey and Yves Sintomer (eds), La xénophobie en banlieue. Effets et expressions (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000): 73-90.
  • [25]
    This finding leads us to emphasize the historical evolution of ethnicity. It has changed from a primarily racial ethnicity of a dominant group – in which the archetype was the notion of a “superior race” or, alternatively, a “master race” – to an essentially culturalist ethnicity of a dominated group – which claims a right to cultural difference supposedly threatened by invasive and potentially dominant foreign cultures.
  • [26]
    Interview with Jean-Luc Chifflet, 16 April 2002.
  • [27]
    This was Vive la France, by Mohamed Rouabhi.
  • [28]
    Interview on 29 February 2008. The mention of this T-shirt, on which might be printed “Proud to be French”, serves to emphasize, once again, to what extent “French identity” is now grasped primarily in its ethnic or even racial dimension, especially in the world of the poor, where it is associated with only a portion of the population and where the claim to be French can be perceived as itself racist.
  • [29]
    In February 2008, this young woman of West Indian origin, holder of a DEUG in LEA [a degree in applied foreign languages], wanted to be an air hostess. In the end, in 2009, she joined the navy.
  • [30]
    Erving Goffman, Stigmate. Les usages sociaux des handicaps (Paris: Minuit, 1975).
  • [31]
    Stéphane Beaud and Maurice Pialoux, Retour sur la condition ouvrière. Enquête aux usines Peugeot de Sochaux-Montbéliard (Paris: Fayard, 1999).
  • [32]
    Interview with Mehdi in spring 2002.
  • [33]
    In the United States, some candidates – both Republicans and Democrats – have more or less explicitly invoked the ethnic divide in their electoral campaigns. Investigations by social psychologists have begun to measure the effects of such campaigns on voting behavior. See, for instance, Nicholas Valentino, Vincent Hutchings and Ismail White, “Cues that matter: how political ads prime racial attitudes during campaigns”, American Political Science Review, 96(1), 2002, 75-90.
  • [34]
    TF1 Channel, 5 February 2007.
  • [35]
    In the United States, the ethnicity of candidates and the impact that factor could potentially produce, in terms of mobilization or electoral choices, is very difficult to measure and has produced a large field of literature.
  • [36]
    Vincent Tiberj, La crispation hexagonale (Paris: Plon, 2008).
  • [37]
    For example, Raymond Wolfinger, “The development and persistence of ethnic voting”, American Political Science Review, 59(4), 1965, 896-908; Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule. Race and Class in African-American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • [38]
    This explains why it is not enough to manifest a high propensity to anti-foreigner ethnicism to vote for the FN, as shown by polling investigation, in Gérard Grunberg and Etienne Schweisguth, “La tripartition de l’espace politique”, in Pascal Perrineau and Colette Ysmal (eds), Le vote de tous les refus. Les élections présidentielles et législatives de 2002 (Paris: Presses de Science Po, 2003), 341-62. These same surveys indicate that antiforeign ethnicism, while not a sufficient condition is, however, a necessary condition for this type of electoral orientation.
  • [39]
    Only the five leading candidates in this polling station were taken into account. This EPQ was administered by the authors, alongside students of the University of Cergy-Pontoise, on 22 April 2007, as part of the PAEC investigation. Unlike the regular exit polls, our questionnaires are offered to all voters, without exception, from the opening to the closing of the polling station. This practice allows accurate measurement of selection bias or reporting bias that affects this type of research technology.
  • [40]
    The characteristics of voters who refused to answer our exit poll questionnaires were (roughly) evaluated, by ourselves and by the students who joined us on Sundays when there was a poll, based on physical appearance alone. The observation notebook was inconsistently filled in, depending on the ballot in question (a fact partly due to the polling station having had two exits). In the second round of the 2002 presidential election and in the three rounds of voting in the spring of 2004, we managed to identify approximately 90% of the voters, by combining data obtained through questionnaires with the information gathered in the observation notebook.
  • [41]
    The ethnic divide in voting patterns is therefore, in France, also an “ethnic vote” i.e. ethnically shared and motivated, and not just common to individuals with the same “ethnic characteristics”. Martin Plax, “Uncovering ambiguities in some uses of the concept of ethnic voting”, Midwest Journal of Political Science, 15(3), 1971, 571-82. The qualitative approach, while rarely used, is no doubt the best in terms of illuminating this distinction. For a recent, persuasive example, Katherine Cramer Walsh, Talking about Politics. Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  • [42]
    Telephone questionnaire, Louise Justin, February and April 2002.
  • [43]
    Interview, Élisa Justin, March 2007.
  • [44]
    A certain interpretive prudence is required in light of the low number of active participants.
  • [45]
    We believe that electoral intensity is “low” when participation is below 40%, medium when it is between 40 and 60%, “high” when it is between 60 and 80% and “very high” when it exceeds 80%.
  • [46]
    Registered voters with origins in the DOM-TOM not included.
  • [47]
    A logic of identification is certainly at work in the African-American vote in favor of black candidates, as numerous pieces of work have shown. Among the most recent: Tasha S. Philpot and Hanes Walton Jr., “One of our own: Black female candidates and the voters who support them”, American Journal of Political Science, 51(1), 2007, 49-62.
  • [48]
    Due to their remarkable efforts, that day they constituted at least 11.7% of the effective electorate, if we confine ourselves to those born outside mainland France.
  • [49]
    Interview, Jennifer Boualem, garden, 22 April 2002.
  • [50]
    According to its initiators, the Euro-Palestine slate was created at the European elections of 2004 to establish the cause of peace in the Middle East as a priority for EU action. It got 1.83% of the votes cast nationally, but sometimes got many more votes in areas characterized by the strong presence of French people of Maghrebi origin (e.g. 10.75% in Garges-Lès-Gonesse). Among the best-known candidates present on this list was the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. At first he was considered to be an actor who was on the left politically, since he was heavily involved in politics during the 1990s. At that time he defended anti-racist and anti-sectarian positions and was an activist against the National Front in France and against the extreme right in Europe. He stood, for example, for election in Dreux in 1997, so as to oppose a leading figure of the National Front who was a strong presence in that area. In the early 2000s, the comedian changed his position and public discourse and engaged actively in defense of “black questions” and, in his public speeches, held the “Jewish lobby” responsible for the denial of the memory of the victimhood of black people. From the presidential elections of 2002 onward (when he was unable to run due to a failure to obtain the 500 signatures of elected officials necessary to qualify), he multiplied his violently hostile statements on Israel and the Jewish lobby. He did this in statements or public performances, during which he mobilized traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, something that has prompted denunciations and lawsuits on the part of many anti-racist associations.Online
  • [51]
    Marie-Hélène Bacqué, Yves Sintomer, “Affiliations et désaffiliations en banlieue. Réflexions à partir des exemples de Saint-Denis et d’Aubervilliers”, Revue française de sociologie, 42(2), 2001, 217-49.
  • [52]
    These voters recall the Muslim “accomodationist” citizens described by Nancy Venel who, “treated differently will seize on this discrimination and claim the identity discriminated against”: Musulmans et citoyens (Paris: PUF, 2004), 64.Online
  • [53]
    Something Anne Muxel noticed at the end of the 1980s: “Les attitudes sociopolitiques des jeunes issus de l’immigration maghrébine en région parisienne”, Revue française de science politique, 38(6), 1988, 925-40; and a few years later the issue was taken up by Joceline Césari, “Citoyenneté et acte de vote des individus issus de l’immigration maghrébine. Des stratégies politiques plurielles et contradictoires”, Politix, 22, 1993, 93-103.
  • [54]
    Following a logic of recovery and reinforcement well described by Raymond Wolfinger: “While party identification may impede the free play of ethnic salience, it also stabilizes and prolongs ethnic voting by providing a vehicle for continuing perception of ethnic relevance”, “The development and persistence of ethnic voting”, 908.
  • [55]
    Interview with Latifa Djaout, garden, 14 June 2002.
  • [56]
    Michael Dawson forged the concept of a “black utility heuristic” to account for the cognitive processes at work in the evaluation of candidates by African American voters. For him, identity-based voting includes votes motivated by defense of a disadvantaged group, broadly defined. Candidates on the left in France seem to enjoy the presumption in their favor that they work towards the protection of minorities. Behind the Mule, 57.
  • [57]
    A formula employed by Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, on 20 June 2005, the day after the death of an 11-year old child killed in this neighborhood by a stray bullet.
  • [58]
    Our system allows respondents to respond to our questionnaires while keeping their opinions anonymous. They have the possibility of filling in the questionnaire themselves then placing it in an envelope and putting it in a cardboard box.
  • [59]
    In general, the very weak rate of response among voters for Nicolas Sarkozy – the same as that obtained among voters for Jean-Marie Le Pen (10%) – can be interpreted as a contextual selection bias, itself revealing the locally illegitimate character of this voting choice.
  • [60]
    Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen, Non inscrits, mal-inscrits et abstentionnistes. Diagnostic et pistes pour une réforme de l’inscription sur les listes électorales (Paris: La Documentation française, 2007).
  • [61]
    Gérard Grunberg and Étienne Schweisguth, “La tripartition de l’espace politique”, in Le vote de tous les refus, 341-62.
  • [62]
    Vincent Tiberj, La crispation hexagonale. Interviews and ethnographic observations we have undertaken since these presidential elections, especially during the 2008 municipal elections and European elections in 2009, seem to indicate that this segment of the electorate is one of those in which post-presidential election disappointment was strongest. By spring 2008, the voters showed their disenchantment or even anger with the head of state, accused of not keeping his promises in a context that many of these voters see as increasingly worse.
  • [63]
    These seventeen neighborhoods have been chosen from a set of 200 ZUS set out in Christine Fauvelle-Aymar, Abel François and Patricia Vornetti, Les comportements électoraux dans les ZUS aux présidentielles de 2002. Les électeurs des ZUS, des électeurs comme les autres (Report to the Interministerial Delegation for Towns, October 2005). We thank the authors for having supplied us with their database.
  • [64]
    Exit poll conducted 21 April 2002 by CSA for Marianne magazine, undertaken outside polling stations with a nationally representative sample of 5,352 people who had just voted in the first round of presidential elections.
  • [65]
    Survey conducted from 7-9 March 2007 by IFOP for Jeune Afrique magazine, among a sample of 526 adults enrolled on the electoral register and representative of the wider French population of African origin. The African-American vote is, in the same way, overwhelmingly committed to the Democratic Party’s candidates. Michael Dawson reminds us that in 1984, 77% of blacks compared with 5% of whites supported the candidacy of Jesse Jackson, a Democrat, for president and four years later did the same at a rate of 92% as compared with 13% of whites: Behind the Mule, 139. And, just like the left’s vote increased in France in the 1970s with an indication that its support came from the working class, voting Democrat for African-Americans in the same period correlated with signs of belonging to that community. Robert Huckfeldt, Politics in Context. Assimilation and Conflict in Urban Neighborhoods (New York: Agathon Press, 1986).
  • [66]
    The data from the BPF 2006-2007 were produced by the CEVIPOF and are available through the Centre de données socio-politiques at Sciences-Po Paris at the following website:
  • [67]
    Only voting intentions expressed for one of the twelve candidates in the first round of the presidential election were used. The candidacy of Le Page and Nihous were recoded as “others”, then removed from the database. The other candidacies were recoded as follows: “Left” for Laguiller, Besancenot, Buffet, Bové, Voynet and Royal, “Right” for Sarkozy and de Villiers and “Far Right” for Le Pen.
  • [68]
    There is no reason why the subjective sense of belonging should not also play an important role in the ethnic divide. Heinz Eulau was the first to show that this subjective factor counted more than did objective criteria of belonging in predicting the voting patterns of workers. The work of Michael Dawson in particular, on African-American voting, displays one of the potential effects of this phenomenon: the persistence of a Democratic vote on ethnic/racial lines despite processes of social mobility. Heinz Eulau, Class and Party in the Eisenhower Years (New York: 1962); Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule.


This article presents the results of a field study carried out over seven years in a social housing complex in the northern suburbs of Paris. One of the conclusions of the study is that individual and collective identities as well as social relations are, in a neighborhood of this sort, largely structured by categories of race and ethnicity. We find that ethnicity itself, as understood and produced by voters, is one of the determinants of identity-based voting. The subjective relationship to national origin, and, more broadly, the “ethnicization” of cognitive frameworks, are keys to understanding why French citizens of African origin (who make up about half the population of the housing project in question) vote almost exclusively for the left, while a significant proportion of “native” French voters vote for the National Front or, in the most recent presidential election, for Nicolas Sarkozy.

Céline Braconnier
Céline Braconnier – Université de Cergy-Pontoise – is researchers at the CEPEL (Centre d’études politiques de l’Europe latine/Center for the political study of Southern Europe). They work on electoral behavior on the basis of long-term local observation. Set up at the start of the 2000s in the housing project of “the Cosmonauts”, in Saint-Denis, this research approach was expanded, in collaboration with other researchers, to ten sites all over France, as part of the PAECE project (Towards an ecological analysis of electoral behavior). Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen together published La démocratie de l’abstention (Paris: Gallimard, 2007) and Abstentionnistes, non inscrits, mal inscrits (Paris: La documentation française, 2007). Contact:
Jean-Yves Dormagen
Jean-Yves Dormagen – Université Montpellier 1 – is researchers at the CEPEL (Centre d’études politiques de l’Europe latine/Center for the political study of Southern Europe). They work on electoral behavior on the basis of long-term local observation. Set up at the start of the 2000s in the housing project of “the Cosmonauts”, in Saint-Denis, this research approach was expanded, in collaboration with other researchers, to ten sites all over France, as part of the PAECE project (Towards an ecological analysis of electoral behavior). Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen together published La démocratie de l’abstention (Paris: Gallimard, 2007) and Abstentionnistes, non inscrits, mal inscrits (Paris: La documentation française, 2007). Contact:
Translated from French by 
Simon Jackson
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