Virus lockdown raises tensions in France’s poorest areas

Elaine Ganley and Nicolas Garriga
Associated Press

Clichy-Sous-Bois, France — Joining more than 1,000 others, Djemba Diatite stood for hours in line to feed her growing family, grateful for handouts of fruits, vegetables and soap. It was her first time accepting charity, but she had no choice. The coronavirus pandemic has turned her small world upside down.

With open air markets closed, supermarket prices skyrocketing, an out-of-work husband, two children to feed and another on the way, Diatite said even tomatoes are now too expensive.

“This is my only solution,” she said, relieved that a local group in her Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois stepped in with help.

Clichy-sous-Bois – where fiery nationwide riots started in 2005 – is just 23 14 miles northeast of the French capital, but with its rows of housing projects, restless youth and residents teetering on the poverty line, it feels light years away.

The town mayor, seeing a looming crisis triggered by food shortages, sounded the alarm, and with scattered unrest simmering in impoverished suburbs, the French government announced a plan for urgent food assistance of nearly $42.1 million for communities in need.

France continues to be under an extended stay-at-home order until May 11 in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Providing food aid might be the most fixable of the longstanding problems in the heavily immigrant housing projects ringing France’s large cities. Leader after leader has tried and failed to find remedies for often-dilapidated and cramped housing, chronic delinquency, a thriving drug trade and, above all, the entrenched discrimination against minority communities that limits their job prospects in France.

Some residents say they felt confined years before the strict coronavirus lockdown measures imposed March 17.

“I feel the social crisis is growing with confinement,” said Clichy-Sous-Bois Mayor Olivier Klein.

“We see numerous people in need, urgently, in a way we’ve never seen,” he told France Info radio. “In these tense neighborhoods, the smallest spark can trigger still more tension.”

Alongside the food crisis, there has been scattered violence, with youths targeting French police in confrontations that end in clouds of tear gas but no known injuries, including in Clichy-sous-Bois. The town is where filmmaker Ladj Ly shot his Oscar-nominated modern police drama “Les Misérables.”

A call for calm came from an unlikely person, a 30-year-old man with a long criminal record who crashed his motorcycle into the open door of a police car in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, northwest of Paris. Claims that police were at fault spread across the internet. From his hospital bed, he implored gangs to “go home,” in a video released by his lawyer.

Clichy-sous-Bois was the takeoff point of nationwide rioting 15 years ago. Nightly TV images of the destruction awakened many in France to large swaths of a population they barely knew existed. The lockdown is again shining a spotlight on the still mostly invisible lives of those who struggle even in the best of times.

The town is in the poorest region of mainland France, Seine-Saint-Denis, where the overall mortality rate has more than doubled since March 1, when the country began counting virus deaths, according to national statistics agency Insee. Experts have blamed the density of the population, the difficulty to enact social distancing in often large families and the fact that those in poorer areas often have jobs with a higher risk of infection. Statistics were not available to show whether the virus was solely responsible for the higher mortality rates.