Chinese textile wholesalers have taken over a Parisian neighborhood, and the government is determined to legislate them into oblivion.
ON THE CORNER OF RUE CHEMIN VERT and rue Popincourt, in the Sedaine-Popincourt neighborhood of eastern Paris, there’s a rosy marble storefront gilded with a frilly art nouveau script: Boulangerie Francaise et Viennoise, the peeling sign says. But where there were once baguettes, croissants, and petits fours displayed in the window, now there hang samples of cut-rate summer dresses, each in a different tropical print. It’s the middle of winter in Paris, but these garments aren’t meant to entice sidewalk shoppers: After arriving here from China in partially finished condition, they’re cut and sewn together (with “Made in France” labels added), boxed and packed into trucks, and shipped to developing markets.
Just two decades ago, Sedaine-Popincourt was a sleepy, working-class neighborhood undergoing gentrification—the seemingly inevitable spillover from the trendy Marais. Then the Chinese wholesalers started moving in, and the cafés and corner groceries started disappearing, replaced by textile shops with names reminiscent of cheap perfumes: Lady Belle, Show Girls, Miss Coco. Many Parisian quartiers have experienced some form of monoactivité—a pejorative term invoked by French politicians to describe a neighborhood’s economic mix being reduced to a single commercial or industrial sector—yet few exemplify it better than Sedaine-Popincourt: Of the 850 shops crammed into this one-mile area, 600 are Chinese-owned textile concerns.
Claude-Annick Tissot, a local government official, speaks for many longtime residents when she accuses the Chinese who work here—but who live outside the neighborhood, in one of the city’s three Chinatowns—of turning Sedaine-Popincourt into their own factory. “The Chinese leave their trucks in the middle of the street for fifteen minutes, a half hour, an hour,” she said. “There’s noise at night, there’s noise in the buildings. Then, on the weekend, it’s as though everyone’s vacated the neighborhood. People have told me, in tears, that they can’t keep living here.” Tissot, who represents the 11th arrondissement on the Parisian equivalent of the city council, considers it her duty to stage-manage monoactivité out of existence, replacing the wholesalers with butchers and bakers—a process she wistfully heralds as "a return to the trades that existed in these areas before: the artisanal trades.”
France’s Chinese textile workers believe that their livelihoods are at stake. “Before, the Chinese could never find work in French businesses,” Maxime Zhang, president of the Association of Chinese Prêt-à-Porter Merchants, told me. “So go ask the government: How else can we work? One has to live.” The Chinese community strives to be prosperous and law-abiding, he argues, and it should ultimately be judged by its contributions to the French economy.
The promotion of artisanal business is more than just a political talking point in France, where the buzz phrase du jour, “defense of patrimoine
,” though loosely defined as “heritage,” gathers everything from art to traditional know-how into one giant agglomeration of the authentically French. It’s the shibboleth of traditionalists on the right and the left, who view the global marketplace as a steamroller that is leveling the French cultural landscape with half-caf lattes and Hollywood schlock. And when politicians representing the angry residents of Sedaine-Popincourt deploy the phrase, they’re betraying the ambivalence of a certain class of Parisians, who cannot abide the thought of immigration authorities detaining the undocumented workers who pick up their children from school but still draw the line at seeing yet another charming street overrun by monoactivité
PARIS IS A PATCHWORK OF LITTLE VILLAGES,
each with its own set of butchers and bakers. Neighborhoods like Sedaine-Popincourt became the settlements for new immigrant groups, who lived in the same quartier where they worked (because those were the places where they could afford to live and work). Yet this configuration is not entirely organic. The airy Paris of wide boulevards that Americans tour today is a relatively new creation, the result of Baron Haussmann’s total renovation of the city in the second half of the nineteenth century. Unequal investment followed, splitting the city into working-class neighborhoods to the east and bourgeois neighborhoods to the west, in accordance with a dialectic of rising rents, increasing class consciousness, and prevailing weather patterns. (Parisian winds run westerly, meaning soot from the coal plants powering the city fell eastward, away from the parasols of ladies promenading on the Champs-Élysées.)
In the years after the First World War, when the Sephardic Jewish community quit the increasingly nationalistic remnants of the former Ottoman Empire, many settled in Paris, and the 11th was their natural destination. “Those who had the means became wholesalers,” Raphael Maoul explained to me at a sidewalk café on rue Sedaine. “Those who didn’t became marchands forains
.” That’s how Maoul, now seventy-nine, got his start. At the age of twelve, he became a kind of traveling salesman, giving his pitch at open-air markets around Paris. He went on to open his own household-linens-wholesaling business, which he sold several years ago—to a Chinese buyer.
From top: Raphael Maoul; Robert Franco.
“Remember the cafés?” interjected Maoul’s old friend Robert Franco, sitting across from him. “L’Istanbul, Le Bosphor…” Franco’s eyes lit up as he described Turkish immigrants eating börek
and drinking raki late into the night. He said the Sephardic community went to great lengths to assimilate into French society, recalling how his family and neighbors volunteered in droves for the two world wars. “My dad signed up in ’39, just a couple blocks from here.”
Maoul and Franco are two of the last holdouts in a neighborhood once dominated by the Sephardic textile trade, which for decades sustained northern France’s factory towns. But in the 1980s, when Franco and Maoul’s generation of shopkeepers began retiring and selling off their businesses, their children had already fully assimilated into French society and wanted no part in the trade. The only willing buyers were Chinese immigrants.
Despite the global financial crisis, Sedaine-Popincourt is as bustling as ever. The Jewish-controlled household-linens district was concentrated mainly along the rue Sedaine; since the Chinese takeover and the shift from linens to discount fashion, the district has exploded in size, gobbling up retail space from other small businesses, which had already been hurt by the arrival of big-box retailers like IKEA and Carrefour. Franco is now the last Jewish wholesaler in the neighborhood. His warehouse, a cavernous three-story atelier, extends from a passageway invested on every side by Chinese clothing shops. “My friends call me the survivor,” he said.
When I asked him whether he was bothered by the change, he pointed out that northern France owes its success in the textile market to the colonial system; the shift of production from France to Asia, he argued, is natural. “Now they sell us cotton textiles and we sell them TGVs. As far as textiles are concerned, you can’t fight the market.” While many residents of the neighborhood consider the Chinese a fléau
, or scourge, Maoul disagrees. “They work like ants, day and night.” he said. “They are not a scourge. Not at all!” Franco nodded his head, adding, “If you get a bad grade in school, you shouldn’t blame the other students.”
“CHINESE PEOPLE DON’T LIKE TO STAY AT HOME
and go on unemployment,” Maxime Zhang told me. “So we became entrepreneurs. And we succeeded. Just like China.” But while the Chinese community’s success in Sedaine-Popincourt and elsewhere can be attributed to plucky entrepreneurship and perseverance, it is also the result of unique immigration patterns: The community relies on the homeland for capital, markets, and an inexhaustible supply of cheap labor, which in turn fosters self-sufficiency in the diaspora. For capital, the community depends on the tontine system of credit: When someone wants to emigrate, a community pot is collected in their hometown; once repaid, further sums are raised in order to buy a small storefront; once that shop succeeds, arrangements are made for still more family members to come over—and the process repeats itself.
This system has been put in place across Europe. In Italy, it has enabled Chinese immigrants to turn the town of Prato into the country’s second-largest industrial-textile hub in just ten years. But the approach favors the repetition of tried-and-true business models over untested ventures, and there is a tendency to continue channeling investment into the same sector until it’s fully saturated before diversifying into other types of business. The process has already played out in the restaurant trade in Paris, where Chinese delis now appear on every block; the latest arrivals are trying their luck with Thai restaurants and discount sushi joints.
Economic realities aside, to residents the concentration of business activity looks and feels a lot like colonization. City leaders finger the Chinese businesses for a host of interrelated problems, from falling apartment values to rising commercial rents to the disappearance of artisans and other local businesses. In response, the city of Paris has begun exercising its famous and particularly Gallic droit de préemption
—the right of the state to break any private sale it deems against the public interest. It has formed a city corporation, SEMAEST, specifically to combat monoactivité
. It claims to have saved 225 businesses in the Sedaine-Popincourt neighborhood alone. But despite such efforts at the city level, the notoriously sclerotic French state has been slow to catch up. In 2005, the National Assembly granted Paris’s mayor and city council unprecedented powers to preserve economic diversity in the city, but the bill did not become law until last December. “We lost two years,” groused Georges Sarre, the former left-wing mayor of the 11th arrondissement, in the pages of Le Monde
. “We could have saved nearly 250 boutiques.”
the city is trying to prevent what has already happened to the Sentier neighborhood in central Paris. Just fifteen minutes by foot from the Louvre, this historic center of the Ashkenazi Jewish garment trade houses countless sweatshops, concealed in apartments above the wholesale storefronts at street level. One postman who works the area described to me the incessant noise of sewing machines echoing down the hallways and charged encounters with suspicious foremen, who guard the doors and yell at anyone who catches sight of the employees working inside. Many of the buildings around Sentier have been taken over by the textile business, with import-export shops on the ground floor, workshops in the middle of the building, and living quarters at the top.
The French institutional response to these ateliers clandestins has been weak and inconsistent, and there is a sense that battling the phenomenon is futile. A large-scale coordinated investigation in October 2000, dubbed Operation Springtime, rounded up a number of workshop owners and seized large amounts of cash, but such triumphs are rare. For the most part, French authorities seem to have granted a degree of unofficial toleration to the sweatshops. Considering how seamlessly the Chinese producers have blended into the French economy, they may not have a choice. Any serious campaign to dismantle the workshops would deal a punishing blow to the French garment sector, whose success has been made possible by leveraging the low-cost Chinese production within the country, creating its own, peculiarly localized off-shore economy.
Despite its avowedly republican, universal values and an accommodating social-welfare model that would otherwise seem ideal for bridging the gap between immigrants and natives, France’s recent record on integrating (much less assimilating) immigrants has been abysmal. (The most glaring example, of course, being the banlieu riots of 2005, when cars and buildings were set on fire by youths confined to anonymous tower blocks on the outskirts of France’s major cities.) It is actually in spite of their social seclusion that the Chinese have managed to achieve a degree of economic independence unique among recent émigrés. Though that independence appears to be under assault in Sedaine-Popincourt, the government’s only real weapon is its droit de préemption—a drastic, costly and adversarial approach to urban planning.
A change in the zoning laws is simply off the table; as Tissot explained, preemption cannot be imposed by administrative fiat and is subject to appeal, whereas zoning unilaterally deprives a whole class of people their commercial rights. (Shopkeepers are explicitly protected under the French constitution, and the French equivalent of the Supreme Court, the Conseil d’Etat, has repeatedly blocked legislation restricting the liberté de commerçants
.) Besides, in the French view, it isn’t the state’s role to proscribe behavior, but rather to mediate among “social partners.” This contentious process plays out in the media, in community meetings, and—most famously—in the streets.
In the 11th arrondissement, this process has failed, though not for lack of effort. In 1997, Georges Sarre drew up a “charter of friendliness with respect to public space,” which was translated into Mandarin and signed by the Association of Chinese Prêt-à-Porter Merchants, the prefecture of police and representatives of the city of Paris. Sarre has since claimed that the wholesalers never honored the agreement. Pierre Picquart, an expert on the Chinese diaspora who advises the mayor on relations with the community, doubts either side ever wanted to find common ground. He blames the French political class for failing to teach Chinese business owners about French culture and calls the local government’s response “excessive.” “But Sarre had a point. The streets were a mess.”
POLITICS, MORE OFTEN THAN WE SUPPOSE,
is a question of aesthetics. It is no accident that the sort of people who care deeply about UNESCO heritage villages also care about the rights of illegal immigrants. Heritage is part historical enterprise and part exercise in selective memory, and the places and practices we choose to preserve tell us a certain story about our past. The story of Paris that the government has deemed worthy of preserving is that of an entitled bourgeois lifestyle (in contrast to the round-the-clock industriousness of Chinese immigrants) and the inviolability of a mixed urban environment. But this is an aesthetic judgment as much as it is an economic issue, suggesting that cities, like life, should strike a balance between work and leisure. However presumptuous, it is a narrative that has endured. The Turkish community has largely absorbed the same ethos; it remains to be seen whether succeeding generations of Chinese will ultimately follow suit or force the French to redefine what passes for patrimony.
By making the case against monoactivité
in terms of patrimoine
, by singling out a particular industry dominated by a particular ethnic group, the government exposes itself to charges of discrimination. The policy allays the public conscience while keeping the village out of the hands of immigrants; it legitimizes what might otherwise be construed as racism. But there's another, more pernicious aspect to the use of monoactivité
that is less easily attributed to inherited sensibilities. The term anthropomorphizes a globally connected economic activity directed by countless individuals. To blur these economic causes and effects is to see reason for personal animus where there is only collective behavior, a mistake that in turn leads to a more simple truth: The French do not view these shopkeepers as fully French. They are merely the agents of monoactivité
, symbols for the fearsome economic growth of China, appendages of globalization.