World Mayor 2020

Philippe Rio, Mayor of Grigny
Philippe Rio, Mayor of Grigny, France, since 2012

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THE ESSAY
(L'essai en français)

Some people run for municipal office because of family connections, social ambition or a sense of public duty. There are others who become mayor of a city without having conceived the project prior to entering politics or out of a personal commitment, a desire for change and a sense of responsibility. Philippe Rio is one of those.

There are cities whose name shines on the world map, because of a prestigious past, an exceptional heritage or a strong economy. Then there are others whose name is inseparable from the people who live in them, the communities that shape them, the values by which they assert themselves. Grigny is one of those.

The meeting between Philippe Rio and the city of Grigny was inevitable. It is part of a story of nearly half a century, consisting of loyalty, mutual esteem, commitment and recognition.

It all began in 1975 when a group of provincials who had come to Paris to work abandoned the insalubrious housing they occupied in the 13th arrondissement for a large modern complex - the Grande Borne - recently designed by the architect Emile Aillaud with the aim of reducing the number of slums in the Paris region.

It was there that little Philippe, at the age of one, opened his eyes to the world. And what a world it was! It was a world where humble men and women, from very different backgrounds, discovered a city that was designed for them. The names speak for themselves: the Rio family moved to Place aux Herbes, then to Le Méridien; his schooling took place at the Bélier kindergarten, at the École de l'Autruche, then at the Collège Jean Vilar.

What follows then, one has to have experienced to fully understand it: the arrival of more and more vulnerable groups of people; the deterioration of buildings; unemployment which undermines the cohesion of the neighborhoods; the growing insecurity... When Philippe Rio enters adult life, Grande Borne is no longer the ‘City of Children’ but a big boat in a storm. He himself had a difficult time: he was eighteen years old, with a G3 Baccalaureate in his pocket, which a popular singer called the "cheap Baccalaureate / the usual opening / of blocked horizons". In fact: unemployment. Impression of being downgraded. Feeling of worthlessness. Loss of meaning. Realisation that the poor never really escape their fate.

But here is the thing: Philippe Rio is 20 years old and there is no question of him giving up. His responses to the crisis he is going through pave the way for the future.

Act one: the young Philipe joined the Communist Part, the party of resistance, and became politically active in Grigny. No, poverty is not inevitable. No, social inequalities are not inevitable. Understanding the world around us is no longer enough: we must try to change it.

Act two: Philippe Rio enrols at university with the intention of obtaining the intellectual vitals necessary to face life. Because he knows: ignorance is the bedrock of all dangers. On the other hand, culture is an opening to the world, a surpassing of limited horizons. It is through it that we become the one that we are not yet. It is to culture that human beings owe the ability to be enriched by their mutual differences.

The results are there: Philippe Rio joined Sciences-Po, well before the prestigious school opened its doors to the underprivileged suburbs. With a passion for urban planning, development and local development, and a post-graduate diploma (DESS) in his pocket, he soon worked as a specialist in urban renewal and the right to the city.

Urban planning and development. Is Philippe Rio aware that he is replaying the score of his childhood? That the neighborhood, the city, and the territory have become for him a true center of professional and political orientation? From the Place aux Herbes, where he spent his early years, to the desire to think about urban planning in our cities, there is only one step, or rather one field: the one by which the wheat sown in childhood becomes the bread of life in adulthood.

Philippe Rio's career could have taken place far from Grigny, in public institutions or in the cosy comfort of a ministry. But he knows that cities are made and unmade according to human commitments. That municipalities may or may not choose to fight social and territorial inequalities. That places to live are partly what we want them to be.

Without a third act in full maturity, Philippe Rio's itinerary would have remained that of a child from the suburbs who came out on top, a courageous and deserving kid from the neighborhoods who left to make a life for himself outside the ghetto of his childhood.

At the age of twenty-five, the son of a worker anchored his militant action in a field he knew and loved: the city of Grigny. In 1998, he became a city councillor and president of an association of Grande Borne residents, which fights against discrimination generated by housing and culture. Three years later, he became deputy mayor for youth, before the 2008 municipal elections made him first deputy mayor in charge of the urban project, transportation, economic development and the environment.

The beginning of a political career? Perhaps, but that's not what counts. What matters is that the child of Grigny has come back to put his energy and skills at the service of a city faced with the deterioration of its housing, housing problems and a poverty that continues to grow. What counts is the man who made the choice to live in "Grigny 2", a degraded neighborhood of a hundred buildings that has become the second largest housing estate in Europe, in order to be confronted with the same realities as his fellow citizens. What counts, finally, is the coherence, so rare in this field, of a person who lives in conformity with his ideas.

At the end of the 2010s, Philippe Rio was not yet mayor, but he was already proving that social and cultural determinisms were not prohibitive. If the child of the neighborhoods was able to become deputy mayor for youth at the age of less than thirty, it is because the course of hope can be held. That self-realization is possible when it is achieved through openness to others. That popular education is not an empty word. Perhaps even more, that there is no human freedom without responsibility.

Basically, the future mayor of Grigny made his own this slogan, which has been used since his adolescence in numerous public demonstrations: "Grigny, I live there; Grigny, I believe in it".

In 2012, Philippe Rio became the leader of the city almost by surprise, when Claude Vazquez, the communist mayor of Grigny for a quarter of a century, consciously decided to pass the baton to his first deputy. Two years later, he was elected mayor of Grigny in the first round.

The rest is history in the making. That of men and institutions, of words and deeds, of the repeated crises of our time and their indispensable management by those who are in charge.

In March 2016, Grigny joined the new inter-municipal cooperation Grand-Paris-Sud-Seine-Essonne-Sénart. In this enlarged entity, Philippe Rio is in charge of issues relating to sustainable development, the energy transition, the water cycle and biodiversity. A compass and a course for the man who does not discuss the method, preferring to summarise it as follows: "Think Global, Act Local". And if proof were needed of this commitment to social and popular ecology, here it is: after three years of work, a nearly bankrupt condominium of 5,000 homes switched to local geothermal heating and hot water production, thus reducing its energy bill by 25% and, above all, avoiding releasing the equivalent of 15,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. In 2017, Grigny the fragile, Grigny the vulnerable ratified the Paris Climate Agreement (Cop 21).

In this area, other challenges await the mayor of Grigny, including the public ownership of water, as well as the safeguarding of 60 hectares of wetlands in the urban environment, in order to preserve biodiversity and local urban agriculture initiatives. In the face of global warming and the threats to humanity, "Think Global, Act Local" means first of all seeing far and wide.

In recent years, Philippe Rio has been confronted with two major crisis situations, which have led him to reinvent himself and demonstrate resilience.

The first came in 2015, during the attacks that plunged France into mourning, when one of the terrorists turned out to be a child of Grigny. For the mayor and his fellow citizens, the shock was unprecedented. Will empathy towards the doubly murdered population be enough to solve the problems caused by a long-standing territorial inequality? Philippe Rio knows that he must go beyond this. He called on the President of the Republic, obtained a detailed report on the situation in his town, and met the Prime Minister. In a few weeks, Grigny was no longer a poor town in the Essonne region, where 45% of the inhabitants live below the poverty line, but the nerve centre of a citizens' mobilisation. Two years later, hundreds of elected officials and association leaders from all walks of life mobilised by launching the Appel de Grigny in favour of working-class neighbourhoods. The Cité Éducative which was then set up in Grigny became the matrix of a public policy destined to be deployed in 220 towns in France.

Beyond the addresses made to the government and the concrete actions initiated in the area, Philippe Rio did not lose sight of one of the objectives he had set himself: to make Grigny a city for peace. And he knows that peace begins when the Sri Lankan worker and the pharmacist of Grigny origin speak to each other with consideration; when Sarah the Jew and Hala the Syrian forget the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to prepare a good meal together; when the book offered to the child is as important as the bread earned by his parents.

Barely re-elected in 2019, Philippe Rio, like all the mayors of France, has entered the health crisis caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. At first, the major issue was public health in neighbourhoods that had long since become medical deserts. But very quickly, inequalities exploded, poverty was felt more severely, and already fragile populations found themselves confined to overcrowded flats. With the help of a committed public service and a strong network of associations, the City Council developed new practices: health information in several languages, distribution of some 260,000 masks, educational follow-up, provision of digital tools, doubling of meals for the elderly, setting up of short-lived vaccination centres, etc. At the same time, a group of elected representatives approached the President of the Republic to ensure that the suburban recovery plan was adapted to the context. Proposals were debated, and the territories themselves came up with solutions. On 29 January 2021, the Inter-ministerial Committee for cities met in Grigny, in the presence of the Prime Minister and half the government. A symbolic victory for this poor town that has long been left behind.

In the middle of June 2021, three buses from Grigny stop in Paris in front of the Grande Bibliothèque de France. Schoolchildren get off, as well as dozens of inhabitants of the town, men and women as elegantly dressed as if they were going to a wedding. Almost all of them are coming here for the first time. On their arrival, they are offered a snack. Soon they are in the Library's large auditorium. Sitting on the audience side? Yes, but not only that. Many of them are already preparing for a stage show. In an hour's time, the auditorium will go dark, the first applause will break out, and the musicians will go into action. The inhabitants of Grigny, who have just come out of a year of confinement, will perform texts that they wrote during workshops conducted under the difficult conditions that one can imagine. Theatre. Poetry. In French. In Creole. In Arabic. In Portuguese. In Bambara. In Soninke. In Mandarin. In Hindi. And even in Turkish and Kurdish, by two women who look like sisters. Hands dare not touch because of the health crisis, but eyes shine with the pride of being there, and hearts beat in unison.

Back in Grigny, the schoolchildren and their parents will extend this health and cultural break if they wish by visiting an exceptional militant exhibition at the entrance to the Grande Borne: "Banksy in Grigny", with the free provision of 220 works, intended to support the association SOS Méditerranée.

The mayor of Grigny has not forgotten that Jean Vilar was the master of popular theatre in his own school years in the Grande Borne district. And as he himself likes to say: "If the father of all battles is the fight against poverty, the mother of all battles remains education.


*Bruno Doucey
For Bruno Doucey, novelist, poet and publisher of poets born in 1961, literature is an art of hospitality, "a journey through which we blend our cultural and human heritages to build a new art of living together", a resistance that leads to the light. In 2010, together with the novelist Murielle Szac, he founded a publishing house dedicated to the defence of world poetry. But he is also a novelist, often reviving great poets who have sung of freedom and the refusal of all forms of oppression: Max Jacob, Marianne Cohn, Victor Jara, Federico Garcia Lorca, Lounès Matoub, Pablo Neruda. More recently, the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos in a novel entitled 'Ne pleure pas sur la Grèce' (Don't cry over Greece).