The recent controversy over a Fox News segment on “no-go zones” in France, culminating in Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s threat to sue the American channel, was a surreal experience for French-speakers, connoisseurs of France, and, above all, the French themselves. For while the original remarks by Fox interviewee Nolan Peterson contained some fuzziness and error, the existence of such zones has been universally acknowledged in France for years: by members of all political parties, including Hidalgo’s own Socialists, and all media, including the leftist media. There is controversy over what is to be done about these “no-go zones.” But there is no more controversy over their existence than there is controversy over the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
Of course, the French do not use the expression “no-go zones,” because the French speak French. Their expression is “zones de non-droit,” literally “lawless zones,” so described because the police are incapable of maintaining a regular enough presence in them to enforce the law. The police are reputed barely even to risk venturing into the zones de non-droit—hence the colloquial English expression “no-go zone” provides an apt translation.
As applied, above all, to some of the notoriously rough areas on the periphery of France’s major urban centers—the famous banlieues—the term first gained wide currency about 15 years ago. French media were rife with stories of police officers and other representatives of public authority coming under attack upon entering such neighborhoods. In 2001, French criminologists Alain Bauer and Xavier Raufer established a list of 19 such “lawless” or “no-go” zones. In a 2002 study, Vincent Trémolet de Villers explained, “This list contains only those neighborhoods that are in a state of quasi-permanent secession: i.e., at any time of the day, the police, the fire department or even a pizza delivery man cannot enter these neighborhoods without risking attack.”
Zones de non-droit is not an official administrative designation, and it is difficult to say exactly how many such zones exist in France today. Zones urbaines sensibles—roughly, “fragile urban zones”—are a separate matter, and it has been a mistake on the part of American commentators to call all 751 ZUS “no-go zones.” That list of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods was established in 1996 strictly for purposes of urban development. The ministry of the interior maintains a list of 80 “priority security zones” (ZSP), which are particularly hard hit by crime and violence. Of these, no less than three are in Paris proper and another six on the outskirts of Paris.
As minister of the interior from 2002 to 2004, Nicolas Sarkozy made combating the zones de non-droit one of his top priorities, and he took up the theme again when he became president in 2007. But it is not only the security-conscious French right that employs the expression: Socialist and even Communist politicians do as well. This is hardly surprising, as many leftists have served as mayors of the areas in question. In 2011, for instance, former Socialist minister of the interior Daniel Vaillant challenged Sarkozy’s record on tackling urban violence, insisting that “the zones de non-droit have spread under Sarkozy.”
The Socialist politician with perhaps the most intimate knowledge of conditions in the banlieues, Malek Boutih, has been warning about the spread of lawlessness in France’s urban slums for at least as long as Sarkozy, in terms that are, if anything, more dramatic. In 2002, Boutih, then president of the French antiracism organization SOS Racisme, told Le Monde that drastic action needed to be taken against the “barbarians of the cités.” Cités (a cognate of our “cities”) is the colloquial term for France’s sprawling public housing projects, which have become notorious centers for drug-dealing and other forms of illegal trafficking and where criminal gangs are known to lay down their own law in the absence of the forces of order.
“There’s no more time to wait,” Boutih told Le Monde. “One has to get into them, hit hard, vanquish them, retake control of territories that have been abandoned to them by local officials out for their own peace and quiet.” Boutih concluded that “either one retakes control of the cités or one descends into large-scale crime.”
Is Hidalgo also going to sue her fellow Socialists Vaillant and Boutih? Or does she prefer the noncolloquial English expression “lawless zones” to “no-go zones” and think that the former might be better for Paris’s international image?