Inequalities between territories become inequalities within territories


To hear commentators, politicians and particularly local elected officials, the cause is heard: territorial inequalities are increasing, “forgotten” territories are multiplying.

It is no longer la but more the territorial fractures that we denounce. However, in comparison, tirelessly but in an almost inaudible way, the expert speech makes the opposite observation: the state has not forgotten the territories.

How to explain this contradiction? The approach recently proposed by the French historian and sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon to understand contemporary French society is perhaps enlightening. The accelerated changes in our relationship to the territory would they not constitute "a uncertainty test », Expressed through the generalization of a victim position of denouncing the abandonment of territories?

Each of us has, over the past decades, profoundly changed our relationship to the land. Because all kinds of mobility are easier, we generally practice multi-territorial membership, dissociation between places of residence, work or leisure, a form of “territorial zapping”.

Between realities and representations

If the ability to choose one's living areas is not equal for everyone, the fact remains that this less constrained relationship to the territory is widely shared: how can we ignore, for example, that the difficulties of Seine-Saint-Denis due less to the concentration of poor and fragile populations than to the constant renewal of the latter? And it should be remembered that it is the departments of the south of France (Pyrénées-Orientales, Aude, etc.) which concentrate the greater number of social minima holders, because of the massive reception of these populations from the capital region or Hauts-de-France?

These mobilities of all kinds have caused a general loss of reference points. How do you describe the geography of poverty? Admittedly, the poor are much more numerous in absolute value, in the urban centers than in the countryside, but in relative value, the perception can be reversed. Social order is no longer mechanically reflected in space.

This identity uncertainty - we can no longer reason on the mode "tell me where live, I will tell you who you are?" "- generates as a backlash what French sociologist Bruno Latour has described as" spatial suffering of the French ". This suffering is even more sensitive among those who speak on their behalf, the local elected officials. The uncertainty relates to the population they manage: the sedentary or the nomadic? Residents or working people? etc.

Faced with this test of uncertainty, their public expression clings as a backlash to reassuring representations: France from above against France from below or "peripheral", and the multiplication of categorical complaints: the suburbs, the rural, medium-sized towns… The gap is widening between the reality of territorial dynamics and its collective representations. Thus, during the first confinement, we glossed over "the exodus of Parisians" taking refuge in the countryside while the statistical data indicated the opposite.

For example in Haute-Loire, third department by the number of departures from Paris in March 2020, two-thirds were households domiciled in this department returning to the country. The supposed mobility of Parisians mask those of rural people!

This rise in complaints from territories that consider themselves forgotten is largely correlated with the increasing complexity of territorial disparities, recomposed by the movements of households and businesses.

The categorical representation of the territories which distinguishes and opposes large cities, medium-sized towns, peri-urban and rural organizes the public debate and the political expression of local elected officials. For the past thirty years or so, it has in fact been crossed by a much more significant fault line which opposes attractive western France and eastern France, not abandoned by the public authorities but subject to disaffection of households and the companies that follow them, motivated by “hedonic” lifestyle choices.

Confused public action

In recent times, territorial disparities have become even more complex. In a world where everyone organizes their life in archipelagos associating remotely - and even more with teleworking - one or more places of residence, work, consumption, leisure ... the question of accessibility between these places of life becomes decisive . This generates much finer disparities between territories, at all scales, even the most local.

The attractiveness of a rural area is primarily due to its accessibility, its proximity to a train station or a motorway exit. Everywhere in France today, the geography of attractiveness is retracting along the axes of circulation.

Hedonism and accessibility, these two factors combine to implode categories and strata of territories. Inequalities and disparities in development are today less between the categories of territories, than within these categories.

From its inception, after the war, spatial planning in France was designed to reduce territorial imbalances (“Paris and the French desert”). These policies were gradually structured with reference to this objective, around a principle, categorical targeting, and what was later called “territorial positive discrimination”. It was a question of giving more to those who at least: the districts of the city policy, the rural revitalization zones ...

Map of the towns concerned by the “In the heart of the city” operation.

If this policy continues, it is unable to counteract the feeling of generalized abandonment and the inflation of categorical complaints. We have recently witnessed an unprecedented turnaround in government policies.

Categorical targeting is replaced by generalized sprinkling. Each stratum of territories is the beneficiary of the State's attention in an exhaustive manner. Thus the program " City heart action "Covers nearly 220 medium-sized towns, that is to say most of them, and the" small towns of tomorrow "program completes it by targeting all town centers with fewer than 20 inhabitants.

Without being able to guarantee the political acceptability of a priority targeting of State intervention, the scattering is generalized, to the short-term satisfaction of the greatest number, but at the risk of ineffectiveness. This exhaustive treatment focuses on the symptom (the complaints of the territories) but not on the causes (the disparities). What can we expect from an identical treatment of Saint-Dizier and Bayonne, from a medium-sized town at a standstill and another under pressure?

Between an exhausted targeting and a superficial sprinkling, the challenge today is to invent a policy capable of responding to the demand for collective readability of contemporary “territorial disorder”.

Daniel Béhar, Geographer Professor of Universities, Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image Credit: Jacky D /

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