At Paris Olympics, impoverished northeastern suburbs may be the biggest winners

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 1:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 10:54pm

The most deprived region in France is expected to be a big winner now Paris is poised to host the 2024 Olympics with thousands of homes and a new swimming centre to be built in Seine-Saint-Denis for the games.

The poorest of France’s 101 mainland departments, Seine-Saint-Denis sprawls east and north from Paris, much of it a drab expanse of grey suburbs, abandoned factories and poverty.

Paris learned on Monday that it was a near certainty to be the IOC’s chosen host for the 2024 games when its only remaining rival, Los Angeles, agreed to wait another four years. Budapest, Boston, Hamburg and Rome had all pulled out of the race.

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“La Joie est Libre! (Joy Ahead!),” said the front-page headline of L’Equipe sports newspaper, welcoming the news with a play on words. A series of Islamist militant attacks frightened away many visitors from the French capital and city officials hope winning the bid will boost tourism.

Organisers of the games say their aim to lift Seine-Saint-Denis’s fortunes helped their case with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

“Bearing in mind the symbolic and real divides which there sometimes still are between Paris and its suburbs, this young, working class place, with young people of all colours and all origins allows us to say to the IOC that these games are a wonderful opportunity to show that Paris is bigger than Paris,” said Stephane Troussel, president of Seine-Saint-Denis.

Tony Estanguet, co-chair of the Paris bid, said: “We looked at the success of the games in London and for sure, the fact that London succeeded in leaving a strong legacy, a physical legacy in the east of London, was very important for us.”

Not all locals are sure of the benefits however. Some have half an eye on Stratford, a swathe of east London that was redeveloped for the 2012 games, but where rising rents have pushed locals out of similarly created new housing there.

“When there is a lot of investment landlords will also take advantage by adding a bit, increasing the rents,” said Fode Abass Toure, a 45-year-old resident of Bobigny.

“And even the restaurants will try to increase prices of products because a lot of tourists will come,” he said.

Seine-Saint-Denis has a reputation as a Socialist bastion where the French Communist Party and hard-left have a strong presence. It was in the area where the deaths of two youths who were hiding from police in a power station set off 2005 riots.

Unemployment in and around its main towns of Saint-Denis and Bobigny is approaching double the national average at more than 18 per cent. Three out of 10 of its 1.5-million-strong population are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, mostly from Africa, a similar proportion are classed as living in poverty.

The Paris games - which have a relatively modest budget by recent standards at around 7 billion euros (US$8.27 billion), will leave behind two permanent new developments, both of them in Seine-Saint-Denis.

They are the Olympic Village itself, which will be converted after the games to provide more than 3,500 homes, and a swimming centre to stand alongside the Stade de France stadium, built for the 1998 football World Cup, now to be reborn as the Olympic Stadium where track and field athletes will compete.

At a run-down local pool that will be transformed into a water polo venue, children splashed as they played during a visit. “Sport brings people together,” said sports activity leader Jose Defaria, aged 22.

“Even if we don’t come from the same social background, I think we’re the same in sport, we are brought closer together and we make links and it’s good for everyone. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

But a successful Olympic legacy is far from assured for any city, with recent hosts enjoying contrasting fortunes.

The Athens Games left derelict, run-down arenas and unused stadiums. But four years earlier, Sydney used the Games to develop an Olympic Park which is now a thriving commercial, residential and sporting suburb.