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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.