I grew up In Nantes, the 6th largest city in France, with a population of almost 300,000. My parents lived downtown, and I knew the city quite well. I still do: it never really changed. Some shops closed, some moved, new trends appeared and some district developed more than others. But France is an old country, and some things never change.
The first split in the French population isn’t so much the one between the city and the countryside. It is between those who live in the center of cities, and those who live in the banlieue ( the outskirts of the city). City centers are old but historical, walkable and expensive. The outskirts generally connotes areas of low-income apartments and social housing. They are frequently described as “sensitive urban areas” because of their high level of poverty, violence and various trafficking. The middle and upper classes live downtown, immigrants and poor people live in the outskirts.
Paris is a bit different: they are some rich suburbs (like Versailles), and even some “banlieues rouges” (red outskirts — areas where, traditionally, the French Communist Party was powerful). But these are exceptions.
Class struggle is still omnipresent in France. Because politics is a national pastime, people like to describe themselves as “à droite” (right-wing), “à gauche” (left-wing), “soixante-huitard” (a person who either participated in the May 1968 Movement or has Utopian ideas) etc. Other common social nicknames include “bo-bo” (short for “bourgeois-bohemian”, basically the 1990s descendants of the yuppies), “gauche caviar” (French “limousine liberal” or “Champagne socialist” — fake socialist), “bling bling” (describe nouveau riche attitudes; such as Sarkozy wearing expensive and stylish suits and enjoying being in gossip magazines), “beauf” (French “redneck” — a person thought to be vulgar, somewhat alcoholic, unintelligent, bigoted, chauvinistic, supporter of Nationalism etc.)…
And because in France, history and the past are more important than the future, and because nothing really changes, there is still a “us” and a “them”.
Nantes was the slave trade capital of France, which led it to become the largest port in France and a wealthy city. A few large and powerful families settled in the city and still live there today: on the Cours Cambronne (where appartments are valued at over 800,000 €), around the Place Graslin nearby with the posh restaurant “La Cigale”, the Place Royale (which is also the meeting point for demonstrations). The Quai de la Fosse still bears mascaron ornaments on buildings’ facades, symbols of the slave trade.
France is at the opposite of the “American Dream” ideology, where all citizens can pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice. Born rich, born poor, little opportunity for change, that’s the way it is. Privileges are kept jealously… For example, in France, there is a law that requires cities to offer 20% of public housing to their citizens. If they don’t, they must pay a fine, and rich cities don’t mind paying it: bye bye “équalité”… Same goes for schools: by law, citizens are required to send their kids to a nearby school (assuming that way that all kind of social classes will mix). But some schools (are some districts) are notoriously better than others, and thousands of parents do everything they can to escape this regulation (popular tricks include renting a phony residence next to a better school).
Sweet old France…