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From the Field

Social Housing in Postcolonial Contexts

Social State, Imperialism and Segregation in French Guiana

What happens when national social-housing policies developed in mainland France are transposed in overseas territories resulting from former colonies? Taking as her starting point an ethnographic study conducted among Bushinengue minorities in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, in French Guiana, Clémence Léobal demonstrates that the administration of social housing—from the displacement of these populations to “adapted” housing in the 1980s to the occupation standards imposed in new-build dwellings—is still broadly structured by socioracial hierarchies resulting from the postcolonial situation of this territory.

On November 10, 2016, the high court in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana—one of France’s five overseas départements, and thus an integral part of France—issued a judgment in favor of 55 victims of a housing fraud. [1] These people had paid over sums of up to €20,000 to an employee of a construction company called Le Vilain, before she disappeared without a trace—but with the money—in the early 2000s. The 55 victims never managed to obtain the social-housing/aided-homeownership units that they had started to purchase. A year later, only 18 of the 55 people concerned had filed compensation requests. The others hadn’t been aware of either the judgment or the procedure to follow in order to claim the compensation ordered by the court. The persons in question lived in the west of French Guiana and were mainly Bushinengue people [2] and Haitians who were illiterate ou unfamiliar with administrative language. The total number of victims of this affair is in fact even higher than 55: many of those defrauded were not able to prove their good faith in court, as they had not obtained written receipts for the sums paid. Instead, these individuals placed their trust entirely in the white employee known only by her first name, “Madame Chantale.”

This affair – far from anecdotal, but underreported in the media – shares several structural characteristics with the way in which social housing is managed in French overseas territories: the unique nature of the social-housing measures implemented, in contrast to those applied in mainland France; the fact that the working classes are far removed from administrative practices; the significant discretionary powers available to employees in the housing administration; and the personalization of links between employees and the citizens they administer, in which intertwined relationships of class, race, and nationality come into play.

The specific context of western French Guiana is reflected in numerous aspects of social housing in the area. First, as a site of experimentation, with the aim of producing social housing adapted to the Bushinengue peoples, an imperialistic character was evident in the norms and standards—and indeed careers—of the administrators posted to French Guiana from mainland France who developed policies specific to overseas territories. While French Guiana ceased to be a “colony” in 1946, when it became an overseas département, the realities of the way French Guiana was administered bear witness to a certain heteronomy, as all laws and standards were drafted in what people continued to refer to as “la métropole”, that is to say mainland France. This postcolonial situation is specific to France’s overseas territoires: the majority of the population, in numerical terms, was governed over by an elite minority along lines of class, race and nationality—a context that strongly resembled the “colonial situation” (Balandier 1951). A supposed equality in law was tempered in practice by numerous legal exceptions, as well as by de facto inequalities. An analysis of current daily relations between tenants and landlords highlights the racialized hierarchies at play in the management of social housing.

Recording Bushinengue views of a bakaa administration

Bushinengue groups form the largest minority in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni—but a minority in political rather than numerical terms. Conversely, the white and Creole [3] middle classes are numerically in the minority but occupy dominant positions within the city.

My research [4] enabled me to understand the relationship between Bushinengue people making housing requests and the housing administrations and their employees. Those applying to housing waiting lists associate the state with a whiteness referred to as “bakaa,” even if the people they deal with are of diverse origins (Léobal 2016). The term bakaa generally refers to individuals perceived as “white” (weti). It can also refer to Creoles, sometimes called bakaa Blacks (Bakaanenge), who locally form a French-speaking mixed-race elite [5]. Working-class inhabitants almost never meet the bakaa public-service executives who are at the origin of housing policies, primarily because these migrants from mainland France occupy positions of responsibility in Cayenne, or even in Paris, far from Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. Yet, despite this distance, they are the ones who decide upon the policies that shape the city.

Imperialism and “adapted” housing

At present, the accelerated construction of social rental housing in French Guiana—in the form of apartment buildings known locally as batiman (from the standard French word for “building,” bâtiment)—is an attempt to keep pace with the territory’s high population growth. However, social-housing policies here have not always focused on the construction of apartments. On the contrary, so-called “adapted” housing policies were specially designed for overseas territories from the 1970s onwards, later called Logement Évolutif Social (LES; “Adaptive Social Housing”) policies. [6] The construction of this form of housing took place as part of operations to eliminate “bidonvilles” (shanty towns), and thus benefited from specific financing by the French ministry of public works.

This “adapted” housing was designed by a network of professionals from mainland France, whose careers had taken them to various overseas territories. These urban planners, mainly men, presented themselves to the ministry as specialists with expert knowledge of the former colonies, and argued for the implementation of a special housing policy that would facilitate access to homeownership, in contrast to the all-rental housing that prevailed in France.

The idea was to build individual houses with forms specifically designed for “local cultures.” The professionals claimed to rely on “local” know-how, while hybridizing it with French norms regarding good living standards. At the same time, these “self-construction” policies were based on the low cost of racialized labor: the houses were supplied in kits, which self-builders had to assemble themselves, in order to become owners of the houses in exchange. Self-building [7] was part of the method of financing these housing units, in a period of progressive disengagement of the state from housing construction: “Indians’ time costs nothing,” one of the designers of the LES scheme told me.

In practice, in the case of the city of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, this policy resulted in the demolition of neighborhoods of pile dwellings on the banks of the Maroni, where the Bushinengue groups lived, and the construction of triangular houses in the neighborhood of La Charbonnière. They were modelled on traditional triangular Bushinengue houses (Figure 1), with the addition of some French elements: at La Charbonnière, for example, the houses had indoor toilets and kitchens, which was not the case in the traditional triangular houses, or various dormer windows made by carpenters from the Compagnons du Devoir du Tour de France (Figure 2). This project was received with some reticence on the part of the beneficiaries: residents immediately transformed their dwellings to reduce the triangular shape and to enlarge the houses as their families grew, as shown in the photographs below (Figure 3).

Figure 1. Traditional Bushinengue house, drawn by an ethnologist

Source: Jean Hurault, Africains de Guyane. La vie matérielle et l’art des Noirs réfugiés de Guyane, The Hague/Paris, Éditions Mouton, 1965, p. 50.
Figure 2. The model for the first wave of social housing
Source: Archives de la Subdivision de la DDE (local public-works department archives).
Source: Archives de la Subdivision de la DDE (local public-works department archives).
Source: Clémence Léobal, 2011.
Figure 3. Extensions built by residents at La Charbonnière
Source: Clémence Léobal, 2014.

The colonial legacy of these policies can be seen not only in the considerable leeway that bakaa civil servants had to implement these policies, but also in the resulting ethnoracial segregation. These settlements, designed for a particular population group, resulted in the displacement of Bushinengue women from the city center to new neighborhoods on the outskirts of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. This relocation did not go completely uncontested: many of the people who wanted to register on the relocation list made changes to their houses at La Charbonnière. As a result, the urban planners then reduced the “adapted” dimension of the new LES subdivisions, known locally as “sités.” In these housing schemes, only one dimension specific to the Bushinengue populations remained: the peripheral location. This is how the main residential neighborhoods of Saint-Laurent came into being: they were populated by Bushinengue people who had been evicted from the city’s downtown neighborhoods as a result of demolition policies.

Figure 4. Map of rehousing sites in riverside neighborhoods
Source : Clémence Léobal.

The Le Vilain company, which was the only one to offer this type of construction in French Guiana, was liquidated in 2010 following the fraud mentioned at the beginning of this article. This put an end to these experiments in French Guiana, in the absence of any other contractors willing to produce them. At the national level, since 1996, the budget line for overseas housing had been transferred from the ministry of ecology (the successor to the ministry of public works) to the ministry for overseas territories, signalling the abandonment of “adapted” housing policies: overseas elected officials and the ministry for overseas territories instead advocated the implementation of a social-housing policy aligned with that of mainland France. Since the end of these experiments, overseas housing policies have been mainly based on rental housing, thus reproducing the standard French model.

Batiman housing on a day-to-day basis: a dialectic of conflicting norms

The day-to-day administration of social housing creates friction between different visions of “good living,” especially in the rental apartment buildings of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. Their inhabitants consider obtaining a “batiman” apartment as a sign of social ascension, in contrast to the wooden houses that make up half of the city’s neighbourhoods. The tenants furnish their apartments, decorate them and adapt them to their own practices, which may involve the circulation of adults and children between different houses.

These practices are interpreted as “degradations” by social landlords, which they must repress, regardless of their personal feelings, as explained by a social worker employed by one social-housing body:

As they have a small garden, they enclose the terrace that was developed with the dwelling, and then do the same with the garden. They concrete it over and even tile it, and they make a nice little... It’s true that it’s pretty. It’s very nice, but it’s forbidden. Tiled and everything. They end up with another room. And that, of course, is when we start to take action… [8]

In this interview, the employee expresses a positive personal aesthetic judgment regarding these transformations but must apply a standard, namely that of French social housing. This employee, of Creole origin from Cayenne, thus manifests an ambivalent judgment, as she belongs to the Creole middle classes that are themselves “inferiorized” with regard to their managers from mainland France, but who nevertheless apply mainland standards.

Both Creole and white employees working for social landlords consider these tenants to be unsuited to collective living. Information meetings are organized for those who have just been allocated a dwelling, where they learn how to live without “disturbing” their neighbors. When I attended one of these workshops, the participants were mostly Bushinengue women. They expressed to the facilitator their willingness to comply with the recommendations on relations with the neighborhood: to not sit in the communal space in front of their door, to not let the children play in this space, to not go and talk to the neighbors. They thus expressed their desire to conform to this model of bakaa life. Paradoxically, the improvements to their housing that they wish to make with a view to moving up the social ladder—for example, by having an additional room built—are interpreted as irregular practices by social landlords.

This educational vocation of housing is part of the history of social housing in France where, since the hygienist movements of the 19th century, “the qualities of housing are linked to means of consolidating dignity” (Bonnet 2015, p. 27). It is inserted into local social hierarchies. The dominant and Eurocentric ideology conveyed by social housing imposes the model of monogamous two-parent families with two or three children—represented in the brochure below (Figure 5). This contrasts with the larger Bushinengue families, who are considered responsible for the “over-occupation” and degradation of housing. This paternalism thus emanates from Creole employees who are in turn inferior to the officials from mainland France who set the standards to be applied. Hierarchies are intertwined, placing minorities in relation to one another according to a colorist scale [9]: this evokes the “pyramid of tyrants” described by Albert Memmi in Tunisia during the colonial era, where certain fractions of the colonized population were dominant over others (Memmi 1997).

Figure 5. Cover of a brochure produced by the Caisse des Allocations Familiales (family benefits administration) for new social-housing tenants: “Future tenant, prepare your arrival!”

The view offered by ethnography with respect to the Bushinengue inhabitants thus allows us to identify the contours of a housing administration anchored in a French cultural reference framework, which reproduces a racialized social and spatial order. The broad outlines of housing policy are enacted by French laws, applied locally by public-service executives who are often white. These executives spend their working lives moving from one overseas territory to another, exporting their conceptions of the so-called “local” populations and benefiting from particularly wide margins of action. These policies are applied by local Creole middle-class employees, who reproduce the colorist hierarchies. In the case of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, in the face of stigmatization, inhabitants may develop critical attitudes and a certain reserve towards representatives of the state, their policies, or the way they treat citizens. Tenants also continue to deploy their own spatial and residential practices, which defy administrative boundaries and extend across both sides of the Maroni, within networks of extended kinship.


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  • Léobal, C. 2016. “Des marches pour un logement. Demandeuses bushinenguées et administrations bakaa (Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Guyane)”, Politix, no. 116, pp. 163–192.
  • Léobal, C. 2017. « Osu », « baraques » et « batiman ». Redessiner les frontières de l’urbain à Soolan (Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Guyane), PhD thesis in sociology, Université Paris-Descartes.
  • Memmi, A. 1997. Portrait du colonisé, précédé de Portrait du colonisateur, Paris: Gallimard.
  • Ndiaye, P. 2006. “Questions de couleur. Histoire, idéologie et pratiques du colorisme”, in D. Fassin et É. Fassin (eds.), De la question sociale à la question raciale ?, Paris: La Découverte, pp. 37–54.

Further reading

  • François, C. 2015. “Produire et normaliser les familles par le logement”, Mouvements, no. 82, pp. 36–42.
  • Léobal, C. 2018. “La blancheur bakaa, une majorité bien spécifique : race, classe et ethnicité dans les situations de démolition à Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Guyane”, Ayslon(s). Digitales, no. 15.
  • Raymond, H. 2002. “Notice « L’utopie pavillonnaire »”, in M. Ségaud, J. Brun et J.‑C. Driant (eds.), Dictionnaire critique de l’habitat et du logement, Paris: Armand Colin.

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To cite this article:

Clémence Léobal & translated by Oliver Waine, “Social Housing in Postcolonial Contexts. Social State, Imperialism and Segregation in French Guiana”, Metropolitics, 25 September 2020. URL :

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