Locking down viruses increases tensions in the poorest areas of France

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Joining more than 1,000 other people, Djemba Diatite stood in line for hours to feed his growing family, grateful to receive fruit, vegetables and soap. It was the first time she had accepted charity, but she had no choice. The coronavirus pandemic has upset her little world.

With the closure of outdoor markets, soaring supermarket prices, an unemployed husband, two children to feed and another on the way, Diatite said even the tomatoes were now too expensive.

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

Clichy-sous-Bois – where violent national riots started in 2005 – is only 23 kilometers (14 miles) northeast of the French capital, but with its rows of housing projects, restless youth and teetering residents on the poverty line, he feels light years a means.

The mayor of the city, seeing an imminent crisis triggered by food shortages, sounded the alarm, and with scattered unrest simmering in poor suburbs, the French government announced an emergency food aid plan of 39 million euros (almost $ 42.1 million) for communities in need.
Providing food aid could be the most remediable long-standing problem in highly immigrant housing projects in major cities in France. Leader after leader, he has tried and failed to find remedies for often dilapidated and cramped housing, chronic delinquency, a thriving drug trade and, above all, entrenched discrimination against minority communities which limits their prospects for job in France.
Some residents say they felt confined for years before the stringent coronavirus lockdowns imposed on March 17.

“I think the social crisis is getting worse with the confinement,” said Clichy-Sous-Bois mayor Olivier Klein.

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“We see many people in need, urgently, in a way we have never seen,” he said on France Info radio. “In these tense neighborhoods, the smallest spark can trigger even more tension.”

At the same time as the food crisis, there was dispersed violence, young people targeting the French police in clashes which ended in tear gas clouds but no known wounded, notably in Clichy-sous-Bois. The city is the place where filmmaker Ladj Ly filmed his modern Oscar-winning crime 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 motorbike into the open door of a police car in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, northwest of Paris. Allegations that the police were at fault have spread on the Internet. From his hospital bed, he begged the gangs to “go home,” in a video released by his lawyer.

Clichy-sous-Bois was the starting point for a national riot 15 years ago. Nighttime television footage of the destruction woke many people in France to large swathes of a population they barely knew existed. Locking in again brings to light the still mostly invisible life of those who struggle, even in the best of cases.

The city is located in the poorest region of metropolitan France, Seine-Saint-Denis, where the overall mortality rate has more than doubled since March 1, the date on which the country began to count deaths from viruses, according to the national statistics agency Insee. Experts blamed the density of the population, the difficulty of establishing social distancing in often large families, and the fact that residents of the poorest areas often have jobs with higher risk of infection. Statistics were not available to show whether the virus alone was responsible for the higher death rates.

“This crisis only makes (the problems) much more visible,” said Mohamed Mechmache, who runs the association ACLeFeu, or Enough Fire, which arose from the riots and distributes food in Clichy-sous-Bois. Thousands of people are now lining up twice a week for distribution, organized after the foreclosure began.

Diatitis is typical of many in its predicament. Her husband drives a bus to Orly Airport, which closed last month due to the lull in air traffic, leaving him unemployed. The growing family lives in a 26 square meter (less than 280 square feet) apartment.

“There is a very large accumulation of inequalities that often increase” during a crisis, said sociologist Marie-Hélène Bacque who worked with Mechmache in 2013 on political participation in housing projects. About 70% of the population of Clichy-sous-Bois is of immigrant origin, she noted, typical of similar suburban cities.

Economic, social and racial factors bind the suburbs in an intersecting grip of inequality, although France does not keep statistics on ethnic origins, in accordance with its ideal of melting pot.

“We are heading for a great social crisis,” said Bacque.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that since the start of the isolation, the police have carried out checks on 220,000 people in the Seine-Saint-Denis region alone to guarantee compliance with the confinement rules , more than double the national average.

Some police officers attribute the dispersed violence in some neighborhoods to the pressure exerted on drug traffickers during the lockdown. “The traffickers want to eliminate all police presence,” tweeted Linda Kebbab, head of the SGP-FO police union.

Bachir Ghouinem, who helps ACLeFeu to distribute food, called violence “another problem” among the many poor suburbs. But he is one of the few people who wants to talk about the worst-case scenario if food distributions stop.

“Riots and looting. We are afraid of it, ”he said. “If it happens here, it happens everywhere. “

Mechmache, the leader of ACLeFeu, has a longer vision.

“I hope that there will be an awareness at the end of this lockout to tackle the problems of inequality, which have existed for more than 30 years,” he told the Associated Press.

For Bacque, the sociologist, “It is time to return to the fundamental challenge, more equality. “

She said she doubted that this type of political investment would happen, but said that “an explosion cannot be ruled out.”

A tram that makes it easier for residents to connect to Paris – and to work – opened its doors in December in Clichy-sous-Bois. In the neighboring housing project known as Les Bosquets, dilapidated tall buildings and other buildings used by drug traffickers were razed to the ground several years ago, fulfilling a promise made by the government after the 2005 riots .

“But you are not transforming the social dimension by fixing … architectural problems,” said Bacque.

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Ganley reported from Paris.

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Follow the AP coverage of the virus epidemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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