A while ago I got into reading the debates around ‘Grand Paris’ - a plan to annex the Parisian suburbs, to create a greater Paris. Elements of this plan still exist in the ‘Grant Paris Express’, a public transport project to extend the Parisian metro network outwards.

The plan was historically opposed by the PCF in the 1980s, as they judged it would roll back the progress they’d made in the suburbs. However, since 2001 the city of Paris has been run by a coalition of communists, socialists, and greens. The regional council remains controlled by the right, headed up by presidential hopeful Valérie Pécresse.1

Despite the historic left opposition to a greater Paris, the current makeup of the city looks a like a pact between the centre and the inner suburbs, and this alliance does well to defend the progressive character of the city.2 That’s an inversion of the original fears: instead of the city neutralising its radical fringe, the red suburbs have moved inwards.

quartier arago saint ouen

The administrative autonomy of the capital is a weighty question. Until October 2021, the city of Paris was policed by the national gendarmerie; and there was firm opposition in the Senate and National Assembly to the idea that the capital could have its own municipal police. A similar tension exists over the Paris transport network, which belongs to the national state, not the city government.

Paul Chemetov, the ‘architect of the banlieue rouge’ wrote about this in the 1980s with a commentary on alternatives to annexation of the suburbs and urban colonisation. I can’t remember exactly how I got into this debate… I follow a handful of left-wing Parisian urbanists on twitter and it must have filtered through somehow.

Chemetov was responsible for designing the big Ministry of Economy building in Bercy.


The Ministry of Economy is a long blocky rectangle which just out over the Seine.


Chemetov also designed an ice rink in Saint Ouen, I made a note to go check it out.

ice rink

The edifice is made up of huge girders and rusting metal frames.

patinoire 2

There’s a laundrette sheltered under the northern triangular awning, and a little supermarket built into the front. It’s a multifunctional building.

patinoire 3

A road passes through the southern awning, circling round to an underground car park.

patinoire 4

Unfortunately, the ice rink has been closed for over a year due to problems with humidity and there’s an ongoing debate about the cost of renovating it.

The fact that Chemetov got into designing an ice rink isn’t just a novelty, I see it as a statement on Saint-Ouen as a place of its own, a place with an ice rink. Such a unique public leisure facility would be ‘out of place’ in a generic commuter zone, and this is what makes the banlieue more than just overflow housing for the city of Paris.

Sumaya and me got to meet with Pierre Garzon, the (communist) mayor of Villejuif. Garzon mentioned that the Villejuif council had pushed for metro lines to create direct connections between the banlieues, not just spokes leading outward from the centre.3 For Garzon, Villejuif isn’t just an extension of Paris, and that shows in the built environment.

grand pavois

To talk about the ‘banlieue’ as a suburb comes across a slight mistranslation. There are suburban areas around Paris, a vast carpet of boring residential streets, but the banlieue rouge doesn’t look like that. Some of the districts outside of Paris don’t have a suburban form that the term would imply in a US context.

  1. The current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is also a presidential candidate for the Socialist Party. So there’s a rivalry which extends from the politics of Paris to the national stage. 

  2. For ‘progressive character’ see the phantasm of the Paris Commune. 

  3. There’s a lot more to be said about the political complexities of running a communist municipality; the relationship between social movements and the local administration, the tension with national policy. I only got an overview of municipal socialism here.