The suburbs of immigrants on the outskirts of French cities have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Effective locking is almost impossible in these neighborhoods,” explains Aloys Vimard, a nurse from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The NGO has set up diagnostic centers in the densely populated areas north of Marseille.
The lockdown “weighs heavily on people,” says Vimard. “Before the lockout, many children ate only one meal a day at school because it was free. Now they are hungry. The epidemic is worsening inequalities. “
Covid-19 is not as deadly as the Ebola virus that Vimard fought in West Africa, but he sees some similarities. “People find every excuse not to be tested. They don’t want to be identified as sick. I know of two cases who died without seeing a doctor. We are trying to break the stigma associated with the virus, to encourage people to get tested. “
Immigrant settlements are widely regarded as illegal and explosive. Stanislas Guerini, who heads La République en Marche party of President Emmanuel Macron, warned of the risk of “violent conflict” between “France of holiday homes and France of housing projects” in an interview with L magazine ‘Obs.
But although the stereotypes about the suburbs are partly true, the picture that emerged from interviews with people living or working in the immigrant neighborhoods of Paris and Marseille was very different.
Does Vimard fear unrest in the north of Marseille? ” On the contrary. I hear people say that whether you are rich or poor, we are all at risk from the virus. I hear no bitterness, no message of hatred or violence. “
If anything, the suburbs seem to be approaching to a degree not seen in the wealthier areas. Moufid Saleh, son of immigrants from the Comoros, mainly Arab-African from the Indian Ocean, was born and raised in the north of Marseille. He spoke warmly of Selim Hadiji, a doctor of Tunisian origin who organized the fight against Covid-19 in his neighborhood.
Before the lockdown, Saleh was a volunteer coach at the Football Club Loisirs Malpassé, which is supported by the professional team of Olympique de Marseille. Football is his life, and Saleh desperately misses it. But he and other young people in his group volunteered to welcome patients to MSF diagnostic tents.
Saleh’s action is all the more courageous since the Comorian community suffered greatly from Covid-19, following major community celebrations on March 7 and 14. He knows whole families who have been infected. “Of course, I’m afraid,” said Saleh. ” Everyone is. What motivates me is to see the doctors and nurses. “
Young volunteers from Marseille and Seine-Saint-Denis distribute food parcels to needy families. “At 8 p.m. everyone applauds from their windows in Seine-Saint-Denis, just like in the rest of France,” explains Nadir Dendoune, writer, filmmaker and freelance journalist.
“We applaud as much or more than anyone,” says Dendoune. “Because who cleans the streets?” Who works in retirement homes? All caregivers and garbage collectors, all caring for the elderly, they live in the suburbs. We all have a brother, cousin, boyfriend or neighbor who gets up early to go to work. “
To stay in contact
Dendoune passes the lock with his 84-year-old mother, Messaouda. He helps her stay in touch with her family in France and Algeria via a computer and a smartphone.
“She hasn’t been out for 32 days. Even if she acts like a strong woman, she is afraid. She washes everything twice a day with bleach. Doors. Door handles. She tells me that she experienced real poverty, that she lived worse. Like many people her age, she is fatalistic. She says it’s God’s will. ”
Dendoune’s cousin, Aziz, died of Covid-19. The father of his close friend Hassan too. The Arab community in North Africa has been struck by what Dendoune calls triple grief. “We cannot be with our loved ones when they die. We cannot give them an appropriate funeral. Many of them dreamed of being buried in their country of origin. Hassan’s father wanted to be buried in Morocco. It’s impossible right now. ”
I know we are demonized by the media. We have a bad image. But here, you can ask anything to anyone, anytime
Dendoune mentions a video of an incident near his apartment in the early hours of April 26. An Egyptian pursued by the police plunged into the Seine and was recovered. “An Arab like that can’t swim,” can one hear a policeman say another, using a racist insult for a North African Arab. “They are sinking. You should have attached a weight to his foot. “
“Racism has no place in the police of our republic,” said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. The two police officers were suspended.
An earlier incident on the night of April 18 triggered four nights of violence, including an arson attack on a school in suburbs around Paris. A motorcyclist was seriously injured when plainclothes police suddenly opened a car door in front of him.
Whenever violence breaks out, France holds its breath in fear of widespread riots like that of the past.
Véronique Roy lives in Sevran, north of Saint-Denis. Two weeks ago, young people burned a car in the center of Sevran park, which remains open because it gives access to the RER. “We called the police several times because young people were rodeos on motorbikes in the Lidl car park near our home. One night, they dismantled the basketball hoops in the park and burned them. We called the police but they are overwhelmed. “
The price of cannabis and cocaine has increased dramatically as supply routes from Morocco and Spain have been cut, according to anti-drug authority Ofast.
Although neither has any connection to the drug trade, Dendoune and Roy understand that dealers have large stocks and use the Internet to market drugs and arrange home deliveries.
“The clientele came from Paris to buy drugs from Sevran,” says Roy. “Around the RER, not far from the police station. Young people are still there, waiting in cars for customers, or sitting on the low walls around the park. They are not trying to hide. ”
The inhabitants seem to find a new appreciation for their suburbs under lockdown, despite its granularity.
The majority of Sevran residents are Muslim. Nearly 20 radicalized youth have joined IS in Syria, including Roy’s son Quentin, a convert. He was killed there in 2016.
“I used to curse the suburbs because I had long believed that if we had lived elsewhere, it might not have happened,” said Roy. But now she finds a kind of comfort to live in the house where Quentin grew up, enjoying the garden and the distant views of Paris. “The suburbs are full of contrasts. He has beauty and ugliness, good and bad, ”she says.
Whenever he leaves the north of Marseille, Saleh says he has missed it. “I know we are demonized by the media. We have a bad image. But here, you can ask anything to anyone, anytime. When the police injure someone, like the youngster on a motorcycle, the suburbs react. Maybe they shouldn’t, but it’s out of solidarity, and they can’t take that away from us. ”