‘Wall of shame’ built to block crack users sparks fury in Paris suburb

·8-min read

Paris authorities have bricked up a tunnel that connects the French capital and the northeastern suburb of Pantin after moving dozens of crack smokers into the area, a measure that has sparked fury and despair among residents. FRANCE 24 reports from the “wall of shame” at the Paris ringroad.

A woman with no shoes, her clothes torn to shreds, waves her arms high in the air as she steps into the sea of oncoming traffic. Groups of men weave their way among the cars, rattling on the windows of drivers stopped at lights around the ringroad.

Dealers arrive just after dawn at the gardens by Paris’s Porte de la Villette, offering galettes of smokable rock for as little as five euros. Smokers, taking their first hit of the day, light their pipes on the pavement as commuters hurry past them to work.

Just 100 metres away, on the other side of the ringroad, parents in the suburb of Pantin ferry their children to school, regulars head to their local café, to bakers and barbers, as volunteers tend to a community herb garden.

But a wall built last Friday bricking up a tunnel between the two areas, connecting Paris and its poorest suburbs in the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, has sparked fury among locals.

“The wall of shame, thanks Darmanin,” reads the graffiti daubed on the freshly built wall in Pantin, referring to France’s hardline interior minister, whose decision it was to build the wall.

The wall is “not a solution”, said Madame Bendjendi, a local who lives just by the newly built wall, as she returned from the school run.

““I’m really, really anxious,” she said. “It’s not going to stop the crackers (crack addicts) from coming here,” she said, pointing to a nearby road that the drug users could access instead.

But she conceded the wall offered her some protection. “I know it doesn’t suit a lot of people. But for me personally, it’s less of a short cut for the drug users.”

Her neighbour Madame Sidibe, whose balcony overlooks the newly blocked Passage Forceval, said she felt “really afraid”. “I really like the area but I’m looking to move when I can,” she said.

Sofiane, 36, a hairdresser, said that although the wall blocked roughly 80 percent of drug users, clients would now stop coming to the barbershop where he works.

“Parents aren’t going to send their kids here alone anymore,” adding that life in the area was becoming increasingly “unbearable”.

For residents of Pantin, the wall blocks a pedestrian walkway to the capital, fails to protect them from Paris’s decades-long crack problem, and symbolises their segregation from the affluent French capital.

Residents are furious they were given no prior warning about the wall – it was built without consulting local authorities – and that most of them found out about it from the press or on social media.

Cyclists in Pantin now have to navigate the mayhem of the ringroad at Porte de La Villette while pedestrians have to run the gauntlet of the dozens of “walking dead” crack smokers as they dash to the metro.

Read more >> A safe space for addicts? The battle over Paris's 'shooting galleries'

‘Really, really disgusted'

Residents were particularly angry that Darmanin said the crack addicts’ new “home” at the Place Auguste Baron had been chosen because “it was far from residents”.

“We’re ghosts are we?” said Madame Eissa, 36, gesturing at the buildings housing dozens of locals, at the pottery studio, and the communal herb garden run by the “Pas si loin” association on the Rue Berthier. “Those people never set foot here so how would they know what’s going on.”

“I’m really, really disgusted,” she said, keeping a tight hold of her two small children as she looked at the wall with contempt.

“I don’t want to be afraid to come home in the evening and have to watch my back. I feel a bit vulnerable here with my two children. If I’m attacked there's little I can do.”

There was little anger from the residents of Pantin towards the drug users themselves, but there was rage and despair at Paris authorities’ failure to quell a drug problem that has ravaged northeast Paris for the last three decades – and the decision to park it in a suburb with plenty of problems of its own.

“It’s adding misery to misery,” said Rani Idiri, 62, the owner of the neighbouring Flash Bar, as he served coffees to regulars.

“Seine-Saint-Denis, the 93, is the poorest département in France,” he said, adding that the quality of life in the area had sharply deteriorated over the past 15 years.

Idiri said the growing number of homeless and undocumented migrants stranded along the ringroad had coincided with a spike in crime and violence, and that the Quatre Chemins area was now notorious for its cigarette smugglers, aggressive street vendors, and the occasional murder.

“Here it's a poor neighbourhood, so you’re adding poverty on top of poverty.”

The shame of France

“Building a wall to separate Paris from the suburbs is a disgrace,” Idiri said. “On a political level this wall is a disgrace – it’s the shame of France.”

“There are huge parks in Paris – the Jardin du Luxembourg, Boulogne and Vincennes. Why bring them here?” he added with a shrug.

“Money talks,” chipped in one of his regulars, Salah Imazatene, 53. “They don’t want the tourists to see them in Paris so they park them here.”

All of the locals want a committed, long-term solution to a problem that has plagued Paris for the past three decades.

Two years after the launch of an ambitious €9 million anti-crack plan, the problem shows little sign of abating.

Crack users in the wider Paris region currently number around 13,000, with female users on the rise, according to an OFDT (French Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) report published earlier this year.

The report slammed the French government’s anti-crack policy as based on “ad hoc” reactions rather than a comprehensive long-term strategy.

“The crack market’s prevalence over the last 30 years … along with the emergence of a new supply-side of players from the disadvantaged suburbs” illustrated the “failure of public policies", the report added.

Crack smokers first congregated around the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad in the 19th arrondissement (district) in the 1980s, before eventually setting up camp at the infamous “Crack Hill” on the ringroad.

When the “Hill” was dismantled in 2019, the users scattered through the northeast of the city.

Many returned to Stalingrad, where France’s run of Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews saw hundreds of homeless addicts wandering the deserted streets of the capital.

Authorities grouped them in the upper half of the Eole gardens in the 18th arrondissement, only to kick them out again in late June, where they roamed once more around Stalingrad.

Paris police chief Didier Lallemand last week conceded that the presence of crack addicts “near several schools” had become “untenable”.

A kick in the teeth

An initial 80 addicts were bussed from the area around the gardens to Place Auguste Baron near the Porte de la Villette last Friday. Dozens more will follow in the coming days.

For those grappling to improve living conditions in Pantin, the arrival of the addicts and the building of the wall come as a kick in the teeth.

Louis Robert, an architect who works at the Pas si loin association that looks directly on the wall, is worried that their plans for a climbing wall for kids, and a community garden, will now be blocked.

Pas si loin, which doubles up as a café solidaire, also aims to provide a place where women in the community can gather.

“Just look around, there aren’t many women in the area. The women already weren’t very present in the public space around here. Now there’s another wall blocking projects for them,” he said.

“It’s a terrible message to send to the suburbs, particularly to the youth of Seine Saint-Denis,” Geoffrey Carvalhinho, who sits on the municipal council of Pantin, told FRANCE 24 by phone.

“It’s a disgrace,” he continued. “It’s creating a divide between Paris and one of its suburbs. On one side you have the rich, on the other the proletarians.”

“They think because we’re poor, we’re not going to kick up a stink,” said youth worker Céline, 42, at a protest against the wall later that evening.

“But they don’t know anything,” she said with a grin.

As protesters’ cries rang out across the ringroad and residents held up placards saying, “Treat them, protect us,” and “Pantin is better off without Darmanin” locals were unanimous in their commitment to call for a serious long-term strategy on crack.

“The government, the mayor of Paris, have to stop passing the buck,” said Ugo Bajeux, 27, an urban planner, earlier that day.

“This wall represents the impasse (dead end) of public authorities’ policy on crack.”

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