Africa in Saint-Denis

When you come out of the Basilica, just walk straight ahead through Place Jean Jaurès and you will soon find yourself in the Rue de la République (Street of the Republic), a pedestrian street which on a warm summer afternoon is densely populated by Africans, especially Black Africans from dozens of countries south of the Sahara Desert, but also Arabs from North Africa. There is also a “Gallic” minority, meaning the native French folks who used to bury their kings in the Basilica of Saint-Denis.

Rue de la République in Saint-Denis

My own experience of Africa is very limited. In 1963 I spent a week in Morocco, and in 2001 we went to Mozambique and Swaziland to visit our daughter, who was working in Maputo at the time. As a non-flyer I have no intention of returning to Africa, but at least I can get a bit of African flavor in the Rue de la République in Saint-Denis for the price of an ordinary “t+” Paris Métro ticket.

Hijab for sale at Lady Folie

The many clothing shops on Rue de la République all tend to spill out onto the street when the weather permits, and since I was there on a warm summer afternoon I got a good look at what they were selling. This shop, Lady Folie, was selling mainly casual summer clothes, but they also had a manikin that looked like a shy Arab girl modeling a black hijab, if that is the correct word, a loose garment that covers everything but her hands and face. This is not the same as a burqa, which is illegal in France because it also includes a full-face veil.

Clothing shop and the Basilica

Another clothing shop, with the Basilica in the background. Here the manikins are all men or boys. Most are black, but there are also two white ones, a ratio which corresponds roughly to the skin tones of the people walking on the street.

Clothing shop on Rue de la République

Here at the three of the male manikins are black and one is white. There are also two while female manikins, but without heads. The word “SOLDES” in the window means Clearance Sale.

Billboards in Saint Denis

Cosmetics are a big business on the Rue de la République, especially since the customers are women of widely varying skin tones, who presumably need different products.

Cosmetic shops on Rue de la République

Sadly, some of the products on sale in shops like these (but not the shops in my photos, necessarily) are intended to lighten or even whiten the skin of black women. This is a risky undertaking, since some of the ingredients in these products are reported to be extremely dangerous. These ingredients are theoretically banned in the European Union, but are sometimes imported illegally and kept under the counter to be sold to women who are desperate to have lighter skin. I suppose this is a legacy of colonialism (or simply racism), that some women are willing to risk their health and even their lives just to look a shade less black.

Transfer of money

In Saint Denis there are a number of shops which provide the service of transferring money to other countries around the world, particularly African countries.

Foreign workers typically have low-paying jobs, but nonetheless manage to make regular transfers to support their relatives back home. These money transfers, or “remittances” as they are often called in English, are an important source of revenue for many African countries. Reportedly they often amount to much more than these countries receive as “foreign aid” from the governments of rich countries.

The banks and money transfer companies have often been accused (not only in France) of charging excessive fees for their services. Since 2008 the French Development Agency (AFD) has been developing a website for the purpose of comparing fees and services provided by the different companies.

Money transfer companies in Saint Denis

The big money transfer companies Ria, MoneyGram and Western Union all have offices on or near the Rue de la République in Saint Denis.

Peace T-shirts for sale on the Rue de la République

On the warm summer afternoon when I was there, Saint-Denis was completely peaceful. Three-and-a-half months later there were two nights when Saint-Denis was not at all peaceful, but this was not the fault of the local population.

On November 13, 2015, three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the football stadium in Saint-Denis, killing themselves and one bystander. Apparently they had been prevented by security guards from entering the stadium, where they had intended to commit a massacre like the one their accomplices carried out in Paris that same night.

Five days later, in the early morning of November 18, 2015, police discovered that a group of surviving terrorists, including their presumed leader, were hiding in a derelict apartment building on Rue du Corbillon, near Rue de la République in Saint-Denis. After a lengthy firefight with police, three of the suspects were killed and five arrested.

My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2018.

See more posts on Saint-Denis, France. 

5 thoughts on “Africa in Saint-Denis”

  1. I’ve always found it ironic that some black women risk their health to get a lighter skin tone while some white women do the same on sun beds to get a darker tone

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