CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France (AP) – 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 turned his world upside down.
With the closure of outdoor markets around Paris, soaring supermarket prices, an unemployed husband, two children to feed and another on the way, Diatite said even 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 39 million euros (almost 42.1 millions of dollars) 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 crime, a thriving drug trade and, most importantly, entrenched discrimination against minorities which limits their job prospects. in France.
Some residents say they felt confined for years before France imposed strict coronavirus blocking measures on March 17.
“I think the social crisis is getting worse with the confinement,” said Clichy-Sous-Bois mayor Olivier Klein.
“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 scattered violence, young people targeting the French police in clashes which ended in clouds of tear gas, 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. As allegations that the police were at fault spread on the Internet, the man in his hospital bed begged the gangs to “go home,” in a video released by his lawyer.
Clichy-sous-Bois was the spark of riots nationwide 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 highlights those who are struggling, even in the best of times.
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 have blamed the density of the population, the difficulty of social distancing in large families, and the fact that people in the poorest areas often have jobs at higher risk of infection.
“This crisis only makes (the problems) much more visible,” explained Mohamed Mechmache, head of the ACLeFeu group, or Enough Fire, resulting from the riots and which distributes food in Clichy-sous-Bois.
Thousands of people are now lining up twice a week for distribution, organized after the coronavirus shutdown began.
Diatitis is typical of many. Her husband drives a bus to Orly Airport, which closed last month due to the lull in air traffic, leaving him unemployed. Their 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. “We are heading towards a great social crisis. “
About 70% of Clichy-sous-Bois is of immigrant origin, she noted, typical of similar suburban cities.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that since the beginning of the isolation, the police have carried out checks on 220,000 people in Seine-Saint-Denis to guarantee compliance with the confinement rules, more than double the national average.
Some police officers attribute the widespread violence 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, described violence as “a simple problem” among the many poor suburbs of France. But he predicted the worst-case scenario if food distributions stopped.
“Riots and looting. We are afraid of it, ”he said. “If it happens here, it happens everywhere. “
Mechmache, the leader of ACLeFeu, has taken a longer view.
“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’s time to return to the fundamental challenge, more equality”.
But she said she doubted that such a political investment would occur, adding that “an explosion cannot be ruled out.”
A tram that makes it easier for residents of Clichy-sous-Bois to connect to Paris – and to work – opened in December. In the neighboring housing project known as Les Bosquets, the dilapidated skyscrapers used by drug traffickers were razed to the ground several years ago, fulfilling a government promise after the 2005 riots.
“But you are not transforming the social dimension by fixing … architectural problems,” said Bacque.
Ganley reported from Paris.
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