Quand j’partirai ne venez pas pleurer sur ma tombe. Combien sont sincères?

(When I’ve gone, don’t come and weep on my grave. How many are sincere?)
– La Fouine


Until the 1960s – when the new world turned resentfully on the old – the river-wrinkled region to the south of Paris was dotted with handsome country towns made modern by the railways.

Many of the brave stations and postal depots from that era have since fallen into decrepitude, but they still hold the memory of the erstwhile alchemy. Twin rails conducted industrial vigour into the most rustic of locales: the espresso (for it was the Italians who expressed it, collapsing caffeine and locomotives into one steam-powered word) of economic expansion and minute-precision time. Suddenly, provincial farmers could send perishable produce to Paris, where, a mere two hours out of the ground, it would sell for metropolitan prices in the crammed stalls of Les Halles. But they were simultaneously engulfed by the greater force of the city moving out to them: for industrialists, too, could propel products far afield on the railways, so why not manufacture them outside the capital, where land and labour were cheap?

There was the town of Arpajon, for instance, whose fruit and vegetables were so urgently needed in Les Halles that a thirty-seven-kilometre railway was built to link them door-to-door. But the town’s population was also swelling with the influx of new enterprises: breweries and tanneries, and especially the shoe factory, set up in 1859. All this created a new bourgeoisie who built large homes in a self-sufficiently regional style: coated with rough-hewn stone, colourfully painted on the lintels, stretching unnaturally thin and tall. There were parks laid out, and pretty streets of shops, and a grandiose city hall. The railway station – source of everything – was appropriately imposing.

The same rule is shown by its exceptions: take the nearby village of Grigny, which the railway lines did not touch, and which maintained, therefore, an older sense of time. It became bucolic: horse-drawn carts took Parisian day trippers from the nearest station to sit in Grigny’s tourist pavilions, where they could breathe invigorating country air and draw nourishment from the prospect of gently rolling hills. The pastoral eternity of this view was made poignant, all the same, by a modern frisson: sweeping past the distant peasants labouring in the grain fields was the stern line of the Vanne aqueduct – erected as part of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s re-engineering of the capital in the 1860s – which filled greedy Parisian reservoirs with pure water captured 200 kilometres away.

Today, Grigny is a grimy assemblage of 1970s housing blocks. New facades on the schools fly the flags of France and the European Union, and are painted with edifying quotations from great white men, but they are masks for falling-down classrooms. Doctors do not want to work there, and the lone public health centre is always on the brink of closure, even though Grigny plays host to some of France’s most florid health problems – a veritable epidemic of HIV-induced chronic diseases among women, for instance. Half the young are poor and have nothing to do, and the vacuum is often filled with drugs and petty crime. The cost of preventing theft recently drove away Grigny’s only supermarket, the great shell of which now lies empty; in other stores the shelves are roped off from customers, who must ask staff to fetch down toothpaste or shampoo. The only new venture in the town is the mosque, an angular thing of concrete and glass – which, since it is built with funds raised by local Muslims, has taken more than a decade to rise to its present near-completion. There is nothing the town evokes, overall, so much as an open-plan prison, since no space is wasted on pleasure or whim, and no amenities exist save those required to keep inmates docile and alive: the clinic, the sports centre, the fortified police station. If it is unclear what crime Grigny’s inhabitants are guilty of, the cynical truth is written up everywhere: in the condescending street paintings of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and the buildings named after black actors, jazz musicians and sports stars. This is one of France’s designated Zones Urbaines Sensibles (Sensitive Urban Zones); and everyone knows what kind of bureaucratic euphemism ‘sensitive’ is.

Grigny has remained famous among the Paris suburbs, but it is no longer for idyllic reasons. It was one of the most violent centres of the suburban riots of 2005, when Grigny youths opened fire on the police and burned down two schools. Just last year, four policemen arriving in Grigny to inspect a vandalised security camera ended up fighting for their lives after a band of hooded teenagers smashed the windows of their cars to toss in Molotov cocktails. State authority is precarious, and the town is tediously accustomed to car burning, gun violence and the drug trade. Recently it hit the international press when it was revealed that Amedy Coulibaly grew up in one of Grigny’s housing blocks; a self-declared member of ISIS, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 he went on three separate shooting sprees in Paris, ending up in a siege in a Jewish supermarket in Porte de Vincennes where he was shot dead by the police. But Grigny’s notoriety brings about no change and it remains one of the most depressed places in Western Europe: drug-blanched zombies totter in the streets and mothers dream of one thing for their children – getting them out. Impotent local authorities, meanwhile, try to persuade people to reconcile themselves to their lot; the 1970s ziggurats are currently getting a facelift and the town has a cheery new logo.

How did things get like this?

In the 1960s, bureaucrats eyed the small towns to the north and south of Paris with imperial relish, thinking to turn them into warehouses for the capital’s working class. Le Corbusier was still the animating spirit of French architecture and planners found in his gigantism a sense of purpose proportionate to their own importance. They commissioned architect intellectuals to build concrete blocks so vast and outlandish that, travelling past them on the suburban trains, one feels closer to Bucharest or Tirana than to Paris. Grigny’s blocks, planned in 1967 to house poor Parisians rendered homeless by the redevelopment of the 13th arrondissement, were designed by Émile Aillaud, whose poetic vision of the urban future had won him contracts to re-engineer several French towns after wartime bombs had conveniently removed their centres. Grigny’s developments were described as ‘utopian’, but light, air and modernist sculptures could not disguise the fact that they were, essentially, labour camps. As the old inhabitants drifted away, as the Parisian underclass became distinctly racialised, as the true turbulence stored up in ‘scientific housing’ became apparent – these camps became ever more determinedly sequestered. Today’s mosques – gleaming minarets, paid for, often, with money from Turkey, Algeria or Morocco, are right now springing up all over the suburbs – complete the sense of foreign, middle-income countries nestled in the heart of wealthy France. And given the current intensity of French anxieties about such things, it is not difficult to imagine how stigmatised these territories have become, or how policed their borders.

But as it happens, they are quite effectively quarantined by the Paris-region railway system, which was redesigned when the suburbs were built. The original railway map looked like a fishing net thrown over Paris: the spaces between the main lines were filled in by a dense system of local tracks and one-room stations, so that small towns were as connected to each other as they were to the capital. From the 1960s onwards, these vital capillaries were ripped out. While the lines connecting the capital to its satellite towns were used to forge a new suburban rail system – the Réseau Express Régional, or RER – the lines connecting those towns to each other were pulled up or left to grass. The new population dumps had only one purpose, evidently – to supply labour to Paris – and they were not supposed to communicate among themselves. Moreover, since the RER was a stand-alone system, separate from the national rail network, and since its suburban tentacles stretched only so far and then stopped, towns which had formerly been accessible from every direction were now left hanging at the end of a line. No one ever went unless they lived there, and – since visiting a town even five kilometres away could necessitate journeys into Paris and out again – there was a suffocating sense of isolation from everything around.

Where so many people are poor and without private transport, the RER is the only way to come and go – and it has acquired a lugubrious grip over all existence. (Young travellers have mastered a gymnastic substitute to buying tickets: supporting themselves with their hands on the steel barriers, they kick their legs up through the gap between the gates, which activates an emergency sensor on the other side, so the gates slide open.) It is an emblem of exclusion and confinement, as one can tell from the constant references in French rap, whose heartlands are the Parisian suburbs. It is difficult to comprehend how places so close to one of the earth’s most significant urban hubs can seem remote until one comes to depend on these maddeningly infrequent trains, which take up to an hour to reach the capital. Then the bleak and denuded landscape makes some sense – and one realises why the jet-setting Parisian elite which runs French business, politics and culture seems so infuriatingly smug and remote. The car burnings that have become such an emblem of suburban life are very precise, after all, in their symbolism: they are a revolt against the mobile mainstream – against everyone whose rhythms are not drummed out by the deadening stop–start of double-decker trains.

A mere twelve kilometres from Grigny, but a two-hour ordeal on the late-night RER, Arpajon is much diminished from its former self. Even though its population has doubled, there is rather little going on in the town any more: the shoe factory closed in the 1950s and was destroyed in a fire in 1979. The main commercial streets where, in richer towns, there would be clothes stores, bookstores and restaurants, are given over to businesses that produce no bustle: insurance firms, driving schools and, on every corner, real-estate companies – floor space costs not much more here, in fact, than in Bucharest or Tirana, so there is always money to be made.

Looking for morning coffee, I step into a rare open cafe. Like many such businesses around here, this one is run by a Chinese family. Its main commerce seems not to be coffee or beer but lotteries and horse betting, for which ticket dispensers occupy an entire wall. Several men without drinks – and they are only men – are filling in these tickets, which offer, I suppose, some of the better odds that they will leave this kind of life behind. They are all young, and of North African or Middle Eastern origin. They greet each other with fist bumps and a hand to the heart.

The screen in the cafe is playing a music video by Zayn Malik, the half-Pakistani singer from Bradford, England, propelled to stardom by a TV talent show. The video begins with Malik gazing wearily at the baying paparazzi gathered to catch a shot of him as he emerges from his limousine on a rainy night and disappears into a luxury hotel. Celebrity produces no joy in him. Existence is ‘cruel’, he sings, as he trudges towards his hotel room. A photographer leaps out behind him, trying to catch another photo, and is summarily dealt with by a bodyguard – but Zayn is too preoccupied to notice, and walks on, hitting his chorus. Life is ‘in vain’. He doesn’t want to live forever.

Zayn has lost a girlfriend, sung by a ghostly Taylor Swift: this is a break-up song. But it strikes me, not for the first time, how often romantic loss has become just an unfelt convention in pop songs, persisting only as a necessary excuse – or a cover-up – for the real passion, which is not so seemly: that longing for self-annihilation which flows so darkly below the surface of contemporary culture.

I pay for my coffee. ‘Merci, monsieur,’ says the Chinese proprietor, ‘à la prochaine.’ I leave the cafe and walk up to the RER station where I wait for a while on the platform. I read the posted instructions about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Nearby is a flirting pair: white girl and black guy, both in their late teens, both heavily tattooed. The guy starts to kick the girl playfully on her backside. Both are giggling – but he is much bigger than she is and his kicks knock her off balance. She asks him to stop but he is enjoying the game too much. She raises her voice to make herself understood, but then the train approaches and the scene comes to a natural end.

Two-hundred-and-fifty tonnes of red, white and blue train enter the station at one-hundred-and-ten kilometres an hour and draw suddenly to a halt. Doors open with a pneumatic sigh and I get in.

We pull out of Arpajon, and I look out the window. Every surface facing the train is covered in graffiti. It is specific to the RER line, for there is not much graffiti in the town. People seem to have walked every last bit of this track, defacing it. We pass a trailer park. The buildings clear and the view opens up onto fields. We draw alongside the pretty River Orge.

I find myself wondering if there is a relationship between the graffiti and the tattoos. Teenagers here are extravagantly inked and they talk about it in a particular way. As a gesture of reclamation, as if their bodies were not theirs before. These are people, after all, on whom it has been impressed that their bodies are only lent to them by the state, which will rush to claim them back if they do not treat them as they should. Here as everywhere else, of course, their generation has had to shoulder the burden of escalating paranoia about children’s physical safety, and schools are fortified with high steel gates and wide-eyed cameras. But there are added dimensions in the Parisian suburbs: children are frequently taken away, for instance, from parents who threaten their physical security; parents also die young or move away – here, single-parent households represent a quarter of the total – so there are all kinds of occasions to observe how parents are only provisional custodians to a child. Also, in this place where drugs are everywhere, kids are endlessly instructed in the many uses to which they may not put their bodies, on pain of the authorities assuming remote control. The true proprietor of their physical frame is the humourless, preachy state; are tattoos, like the graffiti on the RER tracks, an attempt to deface – and so stake a claim to – public premises? An attempt to spite their own absentee landlords, who have proven so profoundly indifferent to their minds and souls?

In which case, suicide would be a form of destruction of public property.

We arrive in Égly and I get off the train. danger! says a sign on the platform. do not step onto the tracks.

Égly rests on the bank of the river and looks out on the gentle countryside which once made this region so popular. Sitting as it does near the end of the RER line, however, there is a heavy feeling of asphyxiation. Nothing is open as I wander around and there are no people. A dog howls on a balcony where it has been tied up by an absent owner. The street signs speak of decay: the antiques shop, the cemetery, the funeral home, the social centre for the homeless. The regional garbage dump – which seems to be the only motive outsiders ever have for coming here.

There are modest blocks of apartments. Some of the windows allow glimpses of lace curtains of a touching intricacy, harking back to lands far to the east of France; but nearly all have white security shutters drawn down over their windows. The quiet town does not look as though it should be gripped by such anxiety, but everything is barricaded against assault.

I reach the church. Posted outside the door is the list of staff and clergy, who seem to come mostly from francophone Africa. Next to this is the same ubiquitous poster about how to react to a terrorist attack (take shelter behind a solid object, turn off the ringer on your phone). I wander down some narrow lanes. There are ancient, crumbling buildings from the old village days: country dwellings with haylofts and spaces for animals. I pass a shut-up cafe and reach the little police station, which is surrounded by signs saying, military installation: keep out. Access is through a steel cage. I enter the cage and ring the buzzer: the gate growls and I push on through.

Inside, the nature of local preoccupations is writ large upon the walls. are you a victim of conjugal violence? Or: stop jihadist radicalisation. Or: sexual violence: you are not alone. Or: jihadism: family and friends be vigilant! It is as if the police imagine their entire job to consist of holding the community back from its own will to auto-destruction. If people are not destroying their families, it seems, they are plotting to blow themselves up. The self-culling of a vilified population? To paraphrase La Fouine, the most famous rapper from the Paris suburbs, these towns are cemeteries anyway, even before anyone dies.

A policewoman attends to me, and I say I have a few questions about Égly. She asks me for my papers. I am carrying none. ‘This is France,’ she shrugs. ‘Everything works with papers.’

One Picture, A Thousand Words