A combination of cramped quarters, economic stress and accusations of police abuse is inflaming tensions in the poorer districts around the city.
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
April 10, 2020
CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France — The young men, immigrants with no papers and nowhere to go, chatted at close quarters outside the shopping strip, social distancing be damned. Above loomed the shabby facade of one of France’s most notorious housing blocks, packed with families waiting out confinement.
The pain of the moment is concentrated in this dense, impoverished district of the Paris immigrant suburbs, one of four French areas, including Paris and Alsace, hit by “an exceptional excess” of coronavirus deaths, France’s national health director said this week.
Much of Paris — perhaps a quarter of the population — packed up and went off to the countryside when the French government announced strict confinement rules on March 16. But just across the line in Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest department, people didn’t have that choice.
Inside the Paris city limits, the streets are now as quiet as any French provincial town on a Sunday; in the suburbs the streets are mostly empty too. But the apartments are full.
The grim and tired faces of the residents, lining up to get into the post office or the supermarket in the worn shopping strip, tell the story: small public housing apartments packed with families, jobs that have disappeared and an aggressive police force clamping down on youth restless with the confinement rules.
The combination of cramped quarters, acute economic stress and tough policing has made Paris’s poorer suburbs a more dangerous place for the virus to spread, as well as a special source of tension during the epidemic.
Relations between residents and the police, with their undercurrent of racial discrimination, are often fraught even in the best of times, and the current lockdown is not one of them.
Over and over, residents compared the confinement rules to conditions in a prison, and they charged that the police were taking advantage of their mandate to keep the streets clear by harassing, even beating, youths, no questions asked. Some are warning that the pressures are ripe to explode.
“We’ve got a lot of young people in big families, shut up in tiny apartments, and it’s difficult to close them up like that,” said Bilal Chikri, a filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood. “There’s a lot of clashes with the police, lots of police missteps, lots of abuse of power.”
The approach has left residents vulnerable to both the police and the virus. Paris had 732 virus deaths compared with 402 in Seine-Saint-Denis as of April 8, but the city has half again the population of the suburb, where many of the metropolis’s cashiers, deliverymen, transit workers, nurses and couriers live.
“This is getting really tough,” said Larry Karache, an out-of-work shopkeeper, standing outside Chêne Pointu, the housing project where France’s 2005 urban riots were born, and which was depicted in last year’s hit film “Les Miserables.” “We’re actually in prison here.”
“People can’t support their families anymore,’’ he added. “And with the cops now, it’s all about score-settling.”
The stresses, from a lack of money and small spaces, were accumulating.
“It’s like a prison. There are three of us in two rooms,” said Drissa Fofana, an out-of-work construction worker. “But we’ve got to accept it. If this goes on, the little that we’ve got saved up will be all gone,” he said.
Another resident, Mama Traoré, echoed the complaint. “It’s hard,” she said, grimacing as she bent over her shopping cart outside the post office at Chêne Pointu. “I’ve got four kids and three rooms. Too small. With all the noise, I’ve always got a headache.”
Outside the apartment blocks, small groups gather, here and there, mostly at bus stops. But the wide streets are largely quiet.
“On the whole, people are respecting the confinement rules,” said Hamza Esmili, a sociologist who has studied the Paris suburbs. “There isn’t a sort of collective indiscipline about it.”
“But the illness has the potential to continue spreading,” Mr. Esmili warned.
The real danger comes not from people congregating outside, but from the cramped apartments where extended families are packed.
“On the exterior, the confinement is being observed,” said Frédéric Adnet, head of emergency services in the Seine-Saint-Denis department. “It’s not there that the problem is playing out.”
“We’re seeing whole families arrive in the emergency rooms,” he said. “There’s familial contamination. People live, five or six, in little, little apartments.”
Paris had its exodus to country homes. “We didn’t see that in the Seine-Saint-Denis,” Mr. Adnet said. “They don’t have country homes here. So we didn’t benefit from that drop in the population.”
In the last few days the pressure on the area’s three public hospitals has eased a little, officials said. But the tension inside the tired old apartment blocks is spilling into the streets.
The French police have come down hard, in the accounts of several residents, responding to perceived lapses in the confinement rules with beatings, harassment, humiliation and intimidation.
A coalition of rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, denounced “unacceptable and illegal behavior” by the police in the Paris suburbs in a March 27 statement, saying the health crisis “doesn’t mean a break with the rule of law and doesn’t justify discriminatory checks or unjustified force.”
It noted that these abuses “are common, and rarely punished” in France.
A leading police union, in a post on Twitter, called the residents’ accounts “fables,” and blamed them on “little Dzerjinskis” — a reference to a celebrated Bolshevik revolutionary — who are “holed up in the Latin Quarter, or their country homes.”
But the accounts are consistent, widespread and tied to the French government’s confinement rules. Since March 17 authorities have demanded a self-signed interior ministry release form giving one of four preapproved reasons for being outside.
In the Paris suburbs, if the police catch you without the form, or if there is an error on it, you are in trouble, residents said.
“The police just jump in, just like that, with force,” said Fiston Kabunda, who works as a mediator for the city of Clichy-sous-Bois. “There’s no discussion.”
“It’s an abuse of power: ‘We’re going to beat up some black and Arab,’” he added.
“Look, it’s like this: The police come, and they start to beat up on the kids,” he said. “They’re not even checking them. It’s brutality, no questions asked.”
A spokesman for the police prefecture of Paris, which is responsible for Seine-Saint-Denis, said the police would not comment on accusations that were “not specific.”
Mr. Chikri, the filmmaker, said he had forgotten his release form in his car when a group of police surrounded him last week, threw him to the ground, handcuffed him, kicked him and squeezed his carotid artery. “You can stuff your release form,” the police told him, Mr. Chikri recalled.
“With these guys, it’s all hatred and violence,” he said.
The police in Paris did not respond to a specific inquiry about Mr. Chikri’s accusations.
In a video widely circulating on French social media, a young man in the suburb of Les Ulis can be heard screaming in pain during a police “check” for a missing release form.
“He was savagely beaten with truncheons, fists and kicks until he fell to the ground, but the punishment continued,” said a criminal complaint filed on behalf of Sofiane Naoufel El Allaki, a 21-year-old deliveryman for Amazon, by a Paris human rights lawyer, Samim Bolaky.
“The screams of Mr. El Allaki penetrated the whole neighborhood,” the complaint said.
“This is not about confrontation,” Mr. Bolaky said. “This is not urban violence. The streets are deserted. They didn’t even ask him for his release form. He didn’t resist at all.”
The police in the Essone department, where the incident took place, did not respond to a specific inquiry about Mr. El Allaki’s claims. Mr. El Allaki’s case is one of several involving police violence being investigated by prosecutors.
Mr. Esmili, the sociologist, warned that the way the authorities were enforcing the lockdown was only reinforcing the worst expectations of many in France’s poorest areas.
“Look, the state is completely ignoring how people live in these neighborhoods,” he said. “Its only response to them is an excess of authoritarianism. And the people are beginning to understand, the only response is police force.”
Constant Meheut contributed reporting.
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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