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The other Paris: A look at the darker sides of the City of Light

Evie Burrows-Taylor
Evie Burrows-Taylor - [email protected]
The other Paris: A look at the darker sides of the City of Light
Soldiers by the Eiffel Tower. Photo: AFP

When people think of Paris they think of wonderful cuisine, beautiful boulevards, street side cafes and its glamorous short, la vie en rose. But there are some darker sides to life in the city of light.


Everyone knows the term Paris syndrome, used for tourists who are said to be suffering the shattered dreams that inevitably result from overexposure to clichés prior to their arrival in the City of Light. 
But we are not talking about the myths and legends of moody waiters, rude locals and piles of pavement dog poo that might leave the odd tourist disappointed.
There is a grittier reality to life in the French capital, that is worth noting, although it shouldn't put you off visiting.
Sexual harassment on transport
Groping on the Metro, soliciting in the street, catcalling and worse...the City of Love isn't always quite as romantic as its reputation would have us believe. 
As the wave of allegations against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and ensuing #MeToo campaign took hold in 2017, the subject of women's issues felt even more pertinent in France where a new law is set to be introduced to impose on-the-spot fines for sexual harassment of women on the streets.
In October 2017 when The Local went on to the street to talk to women about their experiences of sexual harassment, Madeleine La Salle, a 30-year-old Parisian woman said: "During one packed Metro journey a man pressed up against me and placed his erect penis between my buttocks. 
"I was so scared, I was shaking. I didn't know what to do," she said. 
Women in Paris tell their stories of being groped, pestered and sexually harassed
Photo: AFP
Paris's own migrant crisis
In recent years Paris has seen sprawling squalid migrant camps spring up all over the city. The latest to be cleared was the one that housed thousands along the Canal St Martin in the 10th arrondissement.
"Teachers in school taught us about France and what a wonderful place it was," Khater, who said he was 15 years old, as he stood by the dozens of tents strung along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin that now serve as home for hundreds of migrants, told The Local.
"I didn't think it would be like this," he said, surveying the squalid scene along the canal, whose banks in summer host hundreds of trendy youngsters drinking beer or wine late into the night. 
And while in parts of Paris it's the historic Haussmann architecture or the beautiful parks that dominate the view, in other parts, mostly the north and north east of the capital - it's the tented communities that regularly emerge that draws people's eyes.
No Christmas cheer for migrants in tents on banks of Paris canalTents by Canal Saint Martin, Paris. Photo: Rory Mulholland
France's handling of the migrant crisis, or mishandling, as many would see it, has been the subject of much hand wringing on the part of the French government, rights groups and the general public. 
Critics ask why France appears to be failing refugees that end up here when Germany has been able to handle more than a million migrants since 2015, with few if any of them having to live in the squalor seen on Paris streets or at the notorious Calais “Jungle” that was finally shut down just over a year ago. 
While authorities appear keen not to allow these camps to emerge it feels only a matter of time until the next one. The migrant crisis is here to stay, it seems.
Migrant camps emerge in the heart of Paris(A migrant camp under Line 2 of the Paris Metro in 2015. It has since been destroyed.)
There are also the camps set up by the Roma community around the city (see photo below), which are regularly pulled down by the police. Another problem that doesn't seem to have a solution.
The scale of the problem of rough sleeping on the streets of Paris is hard to ignore, with the sheer number of people begging in the French capital raising the eyebrows of locals and visitors alike.
Whether it's someone appealing to commuters on the Metro, or the more discreet appeal of the person holding up a cardboard sign asking for money for food (Pour manger s'il vous plait) on a street corner, it's impossible not to notice just how many people here are searching for a petite pièce.
From the limbless beggars crawling through the carriages on the Metro and the people who approach you as you sit outside of brasseries, to the families in bus shelters and those who play a song or write a poem in exchange for some small change, the variety and amount of begging in Paris can be shocking for those unfamiliar with the city. And sometimes even for those who live here.  
Photo: AFP
"There have been more and more French people ending up on the streets in recent years with rising unemployment. And there is a problem with the lack of local solidarity," Louis-Xavier Leca, Director of La Cloche, an organisation that promotes relationships between neighbourhood businesses, residents and the homeless living there, told The Local. 
"After my own experience spending time in Chile and West Africa, I think it can be worse to fall on hard times in Paris than in poorer countries. People tend to be more isolated here," he added.
The problem of drugs blights most cities but it often appears more visible in certain parts of Paris.
Obviously if you head over to the wealthy 8th or 16th arrondissements you are unlikely to get the impression that the City of Light is overrun by dealers and crack addicts.
However try parts of the 19th, 18th or 10th arrondissements where authorities and police have struggled to deal with the extent of the problem.
After police moved in to close a so-called "crack hill" on the edge of the city earlier in 2018 dealers and their addicts moved into more central parts of the city.
Place de Stalingrad which borders the 10th, 18th and 19th arrondissements and is home to trendy bars became the new hub for dealers selling crack for as little as €6.
The sight of addicts injecting themselves with drugs or smoking them has become in a square once frequented by families. Police and the Paris mayor have vowed to tackle the problem.
Gare du Nord 
Gare du Nord is often cited by visitors as being a somewhat underwhelming even dirty and smelly introduction to Paris. 
From the smell of urine outside, the dilapidated ceilings, lack of signage and leaky ceilings to the narrow platforms, closed shops, lack of space or the general all round filth, the station has a few well-documented issues.
In fact, it was once dubbed "the squalor pit of Europe" by a British exec and even these days you don't have to spend long there to think it might still be deserving of the name.
Part of the problem is the station is located in one of the city's most problematic areas for drugs and alcoholics, with other stations in the north east of Paris showing signs of the strain. 
Indeed, the prevalence of dealers and addicts at some Metro stops has led some drivers to skip certain stations because of the drugs related violence, particularly on lines 12 and 4. 
Happily -- at least for Gard du Nord and its users -- there are plans to finally give the station a much needed makeover which it is hoped will be finished just in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024. 
Photo: AFP
Homophobic violence
Paris is not a city people associate with homophobia given its thriving gay scene.
If you judged the city by a night out in the Marais quarter you wouldn't get the impression the city's gay community were cowering in fear.
They are not, but that doesn't mean there isn't a longstanding problem with homophobia.
"I'm gay and this is 2018," said Guillaume Mélanie, President of Urgence Homophobie, pictured below on the right, who was one of the victims.
'l'm gay and this is 2018': Paris left shocked by another homophobic attack
Mayor Anne Hidalgo has vowed to take action and former deputy mayor of Paris, Bruno Julliard also regretted "the proliferation of homophobic attacks, public insults, savage 'outings' and incessant insults on social networks.
"Homophobia is doing very well in 2018. It is no longer bearable, it requires collective action: the police, justice system, schools, associations. Quickly," he said.
Antisemitic attacks 
There have been 11 anti-Semitic murders in France since 2000 but the killing of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor in her Paris home in March 2018 which echoed that of another elderly Jewish woman in Paris, left the community in France particularly shocked and scared.
Two people were charged with the brutal murder of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old French Jewish woman, who was repeatedly stabbed and whose body was then set alight in a crime being treated as anti-Semitic by French police.
This violent murder which has echoes of a similar case from April 2017 in which Sarah Halimi was also killed in her own home in the same 11th arrondissement of Paris.
It's not just the brutal murders.
There have been incidents in the suburbs of the capital where Jewish stores have been burned down and young Jewish boys beaten up for wearing the Kippa.
And the incident when anti-Semitic graffiti reading "Jewish scum live here" was scrawled on the door of a Paris apartment building caused shock and anger in the French capital.
Inequality: Paris vs. the banlieues
When people think of the Paris banlieues (if they do at all), it's likely they either think of them at best as grey, lifeless neighbourhoods full of tower blocks and at worst as places of poverty, violence and crime. There is an element of truth to both.
And it's also true that life in the banlieues is startingly different to life in the French capital, essentially because they've been neglected over the years at the expense of the inner city centre where threre is more wealth, as well as resources and prospects. This is actually referred to as the "donut effect".
Successive French governments have been accused of failing to do enough to mend the massive inequality and have been accused of following an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to the banlieues.
In truth, most visitors to Paris will have little reason to venture beyond the peripherique ring road which acts as the barrier between Paris and "not-Paris".
Despite the soul-searching prompted by the outbreak of those riots and may since,  there has been very little positive outcome.
And that's in spite of various government initiatives and billions of euros spent over the years.
"There's been a decline that has set in in recent years that is approaching on the irreparable, because ten years on these suburbs are no longer producing rioters, they are producing terrorists," said Malek Boutih, an MP for the département of Essonne to the south of Paris and former head of SOS Racism in 2015
On the plus side, the Grand Paris project should at least boost transport links to the outer suburbs and is a sign that psychologically at least Paris is starting to acknowledge it must think of itself as a city whose limits don't suddenly stop at the periphérique.
Why the French banlieues are ripe for repeat of 2005 riots
Photo: AFP
The violence has once again focused attention on an issue -- not one that is not particularly new but one which is increasingly worrying the French authorities -- in part due to the young age of those being drawn into violent groups.
"It's very worrying. There is real trivialization of violence among young people. These are boys as young as 13, more often that not from tough neighbourhoods, who are marginalized and often not in schools. They also lack any kind of parental framework," Yvan Assioma, from the Alliance police union, told The Local.
Gangs of Paris: Youth violence in French capital claims another life
Photo: AFP
Since 2009 a special police unit has been tasked with monitoring and mapping the violence among rival groups of youths. There are believed to be around 40 different groups in Paris, mostly based in the outer arrondissements in the north and east of the city.
Police are however reluctant to call them "gangs", because they insist there is very little organisation and structure.
"These are just young people, who might be from the same arrondissement, block of flats or school. There might be a core of five or six, perhaps up to 10, but then they can grow very quickly if needed," said Assioma. "And they can also dissolve pretty quickly too.
"There is no leader or structure like in organised gangs and they often just form for a spontaneous event for any kind of motive."
Threat of terrorism 
The threat of terrorism has plagued France and in particular its capital since 2015, after jihadist attacks left scores dead.
Despite the violence, bars, restaurants and music venues have recovered well since the attacks in November 2015 and Parisians go about their daily lives as normal.
But while the country's state of emergency may have been lifted in November 2017 -- after two years of being in place -- and replaced with a new anti-terror laws the threat remains, with the government saying it thwarts attacks on a regular basis.
It is still the norm to see soldiers and armed police wandering around the tourist hotspots as well as quiet, residential areas of the city. 
Attacks on police and soldiers at tourist sites including Notre-Damethe Champs-Elysees and the Louvre means a high police and military presence is inevitable and given most experts believe the threat will remain for a generation, it is likely to remain that way.
There has also been a marked increase in general security, such as guards at the entrances to bars, shops and concert venues with customers and revellers forced to undergo body searches and bag checks.
While this doesn't really fit in with the fairy tale image of Paris that is so popular worldwide, locals have just got used to it and although tourists numbers have fallen, millions still come through the arrival gates.
France spells out four ways it plans to step up fight against terrorism
This article has been updated since it was first published earlier in 2018.

While authorities appear keen not to allow these camps to emerge it feels only a matter of time until the next one. The migrant crisis is here to stay, it seems.



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