In France's cities, public space risks becoming a women-free zone

French men playing petanque. Image: Nico97492 on Flickr, reused under creative commons.

Aubervilliers, an outer suburb in the north-east of Paris, is the sort of place that lacks the photogenic appeal that one usually associates with the capital. It’s part of a newer city, of the sort that doesn’t make it into the tourist brochures. Almost 40 per cent of its population was born outside France; 1,000 of its housing units were built on a former “quasi-slum” in the 1970s.

In other words, Aubervilliers is a place that one lives in rather than visits (at least, unless you’re an over-zealous Arsenal fans: it’s also the hometown of midfielder Abou Diaby). Though it doesn't quite have central Paris’s bijou-bijou cafés, its main streets have a selection of identikit café-bars of the sort one finds throughout France, where gentlemen start sipping cognac from roughly 11am onwards.

In April 2011, Monique, a retired teacher, was looking for one such café on her way home, where she could sit on the terrace with a coffee and enjoy the sunshine. But she felt unwelcome in every one that she passed. “I realized that every single terrace that I passed only had men there, who looked at me as if I didn’t belong there. I couldn’t bear it.”

Feeling uncomfortable entering any one of these cafés alone, Monique went home and sent a round-robin email to her friends, asking for their support. The result was the establishment of “A Place for Women”, a collective which has some fifty-odd members aged between 20 and 60.

Once a month, its members meet in a café or bar, wearing spotted scarves as a kind of collective-wide uniform, and take up a corner of the café. Monique described their first visit: “We came in two by two, snacking on the terrace, taking chair after chair until our group took up a good half of the space.”

Maguy, an author, adds: “I could see the men around us looking at us out of the corner of their eyes: youths and groups of dealers leaning against the wall. Cars stopped outside the café to look in – even the police dropped by a couple of times. But we weren’t afraid, and we became the talk of the town.”

In Aubervilliers, as in many working-class immigrant areas, these kinds of all-male spaces abound. And, while women may not be explicitly forbidden from being there, they often feel ill at ease if there are no other women present.

For Nadia, a member of the group originally from Morocco, it is an impossibility: “For a woman of my age to have a coffee surrounded only by men would be shameful.” Going into a space with an exclusively male clientele often provokes jeering or unpleasant comments: at best, women expect silent reprobation or censorious – even aggressive – looks.

Over three years later, the collective has visited more than thirty cafés in the area. Some, like the Roi du Café, now regularly receive female visitors, and display yellow stickers in their window, given to them by the group. They read: “Here, women can feel at home.”

For women elsewhere in France, however – in Marseille, Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux – there are few public spaces other than cafés or bars in which they can really feel welcome. In municipally sponsored parks or recreational spaces, ostensibly for “young people”, funding is more likely to go to activities that attract boys, such as skateboarding or football. Those that appeal to girls – dancing or gymnastics, for instance – get a relatively small slice of the pie.

The spending inequalities are often justified by a need to channel youth violence into positive activities: “youth violence” is used as code for the “problem” of teenage boys. And there’s nothing to actively prevent girls from going to these places. Nonetheless, many feel unsafe, or at least ill-at-ease, in them.

The outcome is that there are whole parks where, like the cafés of Aubervilliers, girls and women feel unwelcome. This is particularly problematic for those in lower-income brackets, who may not be able to afford going to leisure places which are not free to visit.

This trend begins with funding for youth activities, but it persists throughout all the leisure programs organized by municipal bodies: even recreational spending for the elderly goes on petanque (a form of boules), in which women are not regular participants. The people making these decisions – elected officials, municipal employees, or neighbourhood watch groups – are overwhelmingly male.

Why does this matter? A Place for Women founder Monique says  feeling unsafe in a café is simply the tip of the iceberg: French cities that are built for men and run by men are being engineered to support men. For women, this means a municipal environment in which public spending actively encourages men to take ownership of public spaces. It pushes women out – and makes them feel out-of-place in the cities they call their homes.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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