The Boulevard Périphérique – popularly known simply as le périph – is the 35km ringroad that surrounds Paris – not to be confused with the A86, which is the external ringroad (beltway).
As with many major city ringroads (think London’s M25) it’s not the most fun driving experience as traffic is frequently extremely heavy, especially at peak times like rush hour or the start of the school holidays. The French rule of priorité à droite also applies on the périph, making it a particular challenge for foreign drivers.
But it’s not the frequent traffic jams, shunts and appalling pollution levels that distinguish the périph from other roads – it is its role as the Paris ‘frontier’.
As well as bringing traffic in and out of the city, the road also acts as a territory marker – anything inside the périphérique is Paris, areas outside are not the city proper but are just part of the greater Paris region of Île de France.
Therefore Paris Charles de Gaulle airport is not in Paris, nor is French national stadium Stade de France, the Paris business district of La Défense or Disneyland Paris (although that last one is fair enough, because it’s actually around 40km outside Paris).
Likewise people who live in the suburbs are technically not Parisians but Franciliens/Franciliennes – or inhabitants of the Île-de-France region.
The relatively small confines of the périph also explain some of the more surprising statistics about Paris – such as the fact that its population is just 2.1 million, compared to London with 8.9 million, Berlin with 3.6 million or Madrid with 3.2 million.
Likewise Paris is 105 km square – and you can walk across the entire city from east to west in just over two hours – while Madrid registers 604 km sq, Berlin at 891 km sq and London at a whopping 1,572 km square.
While London is undoubtedly a larger city, both the area and population of Paris come much more in line with other European capitals once you include the inner suburbs.
The barrier is in place politically too, so that the authority of the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, stretches only as far as the périph, while the départements that make up the suburbs elect their own Préfets and mayors. There is some crossover, however, the public transport network Île de France Mobilities is organised on a region-wide basis, while the Paris police force covers both the city and its suburbs.
Surrounding Paris are the three départements that make up the inner suburbs – known as the petite couronne (little crown) – Seine-Saint-Denis, Hauts-de-Seine and Val-de-Marne.
Between them they have a population a 4.5 million people, so if we add them to Paris we get a population of 6.6 million, much more in line with other European capitals. Likewise their combined area of 657 km sq bring Paris and its suburbs to a total area of 762 km sq.
Suburbs in French are known as banlieues and those live there banlieusards.
The inner suburbs, which are largely included in to Metro network, are where a lot of the people who work in Paris actually live – especially those who do the low-paid but vital jobs such as staffing the capital’s transport networks, cleaning the streets and running supermarkets.
The suburbs are generally more spacious with cheaper property prices so the city has seen a decade-long trend of people moving out of central Paris to the suburbs. Over the past 10 years the population of Paris has fallen by 120,000 – but of every 10 people who moved out of the city, six only went as far as the suburbs.
Moving further out of the city are the four départements that make up the outer suburbs and greater Paris region of Île de France; Essonne, Yvelines, Seine-et-Marne and Val d’Oise. These are larger though much less densely populated.
But this isn’t enough to explain on its own why the périphérique is regarded as a ‘social barrier’ – and that’s to do with wealth and income.
The priciest property is the Paris area is in the city centre – particularly in the central four arrondissements that run alongside the River Seine through central Paris, where you’re likely to be close to the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe or both.
Even a fairly modest sized apartment in the city centre will set you back over €1 million, and increasingly locals are being priced out of the market – in arrondissements 1-4, 30 percent of housing is not in full-time occupation. Most of them are instead second homes for wealthy foreigners.
In a very broad generalisation, property prices fall the further away from the city centre you get, and then drop sharply as soon as you cross the peripherique. And this is cited as the main reason for people, especially families with young children, leaving Paris for the ‘burbs.
The suburbs are generally cheaper places to live, both in terms of property prices and in other everyday items like groceries or having a meal or drinks in a café or bar, but income and other issues vary widely between suburbs.
Some suburbs – such as Levallois-Perret and Neuilly-sur-Seine – are extremely wealthy and have for generations been the home of the well-off and socially select families of Paris, while others – such as Montfermeil and Bondy – are characterised by high levels of poverty, crime and social deprivation.
To very broadly generalise, the western Paris suburbs are well off, while the areas to the east and – particularly – the north are poor (and there’s a historical reason for this – it was originally to do with the way the wind blew smoke from factories, so that the poorer areas were to the east which is downwind).
The département of Seine-Saint-Denis, home to the inner suburbs to the north-east of Paris, regularly comes top in indicators for poverty, crime and ill-health and also has a high number of immigrants and refugees.
It is among these suburbs that trouble frequently flares, such as the riots of 2005 and 2017 which gives rise to the reputation of the northern suburbs as ‘ghettos’ of crime and poverty. There are definitely places that have severe social deprivation, high crime rates and a very tense relationship between police and locals – films such as La Haine and Les Misérables (directed by Montfermeil local Ladj Ly) explore those issues in more detail.
And their proximity to Paris increases the contrast – it is 22km (about a 1hr 20 minute cycle ride) from the president’s Elysée Palace in the heart of historic Paris to the notoriously tough suburb of Montfermeil, but the two places are worlds apart.
However, it’s important to remember that not all of Seine-Saint-Denis has these problems and as more families leave Paris, more and more suburban areas are becoming gentrified and/or trendy. The northern suburb of Pantin and the eastern area of Montreuil are among these ‘bobo‘ (hipster) suburbs.
Nonetheless, there remains an attitude among certain Parisians, especially older ones, that to cross the périph means venturing into the ‘wild west’ of drugs, guns and gangs.
This depressing and unimaginative trope can be seen in dozens of French films and TV shows, where characters either never cross the rinrgoad at all, or venture into the suburbs only to buy drugs (FYI drugs are also on sale in Paris).
Meanwhile banlieusard, which simply means a person who lives in the suburbs, has taken on a negative connotation of is is frequently used to describe people who are unemployed and/or involved in low-level criminality. The département number of Seine-Saint-Denis – neuf trois – is also sometimes used in a perjorative way.