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After riots in Paris, the smoke is clearing over the city

Following five nights of unrest, a fraught but fragile calm has returned to the poor suburbs of northern Paris, where many youths feel abandoned after a quarter of the city's population fled the lockdown.

One of the few consolations left to Parisians since the lockdown (“le confinement”), which began on 17 March, is that for most of April the days have been sunny and bright. In the southern part of Paris where I live, the streets are empty, practically without traffic, and it’s rare to see a plane in the clear, blue skies. In the nearby park – one of the few to remain open – kids mess about, parents sunbathe, young women practise yoga and small bands of lads from the neighbouring council estate smoke weed and listen to music. Early each evening, in the nearby Place de la Garenne, there is an impromptu (and illegal) game of five-a-side football.

If you’re in the right frame of mind, you could easily mistake these scenes as a typical lazy afternoon in August, the time of the year when most Parisians go on holiday and the city is left to tourists. When the sun shines, the dark days of early March, when the threat of Covid-19 dominated our lives, now seem to belong to another, quite different era. This is all deeply deceptive.

The most visible indicators of the effects of the virus are that so many people are now wearing masks (often homemade), bars and restaurants remain closed, and the police are ever-vigilant on those who try to get around the lockdown. In the city you still have to carry signed papers that document and justify your movements. The police have been especially tough on the more affluent Parisians who have tried to get away to their second homes, imposing direct fines and often escorting motorists back to within the city limits.

One potential catastrophe concerns the plight of the homeless. There are reckoned to be as many as 3,500 homeless people in Paris. For now, many of them seem to have disappeared from the streets and are being housed in empty hotels, temporary shelters and hostels. Meanwhile, life in poorer parts of the city is further strained by the policy of staying at home, especially if you live, as many Parisians do, in a tiny space with a family and no access to a wider world.

On every street in my quartier, there are posters offering help for women living with violent and abusive men. According to Marlène Schiappa, the secretary of state for gender equality, in the first few weeks of the lockdown acts of “conjugal violence” reported to the police increased by 32 per cent. There is every reason to believe that this figure will rise as the lockdown – and with it the claustrophobia and sense of imprisonment – continues.

There are other tensions, too. In the Département de Seine-Saint-Denis to the north of Paris – and one of the poorest places in France – there have been reports of food riots, most notably from the local préfet (in effect the chief of police), Georges-François Leclerc. He has warned in a leaked email that there is a floating population of between 15,000 and 20,000 people who are either living in “shanty towns, emergency shelters or hostels for migrants”, and who will find it hard to feed themselves in the next few weeks as food supplies diminish. Already there are angry crowds queuing up in front of shops with empty shelves. The Restos du Cœur (“Restaurants of the Heart”, a charity that feeds the homeless and those on low incomes, is reporting queues of a hundred people or more in some areas. A public appeal has been launched by the charity, which says that soon it will not have the resources to feed these people.

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What President Emmanuel Macron fears most is civil disorder, but this has already started and once again the suburbs of northern Paris have been the flashpoint. The trouble began on Saturday 18 April in the council estate of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, when a 30-year-old motorcyclist (who does not want to be named) was driving at speed and without a helmet and collided with a police vehicle. News quickly spread around the quartier that this was a bavure (a deliberate and malicious police cock-up), and by midnight the police were under attack from youths throwing fireworks and setting fire to rubbish bins and cars. Over the next five nights, there were battles and stand-offs across the northern suburbs. The most violent clashes were on the Rue Danielle-Casanova, near the rundown estate of Les Francs Moisins.

The police, wearing riot gear, hit back hard, shooting off LBDs, or lanceurs de balles de défense. These are commonly used in France in riot situations and can fire off a range of ammunition that is supposed to be non-lethal but has caused serious injury. They were widely used during the gilets jaunes demonstrations of 2019, and the Council of Europe called on the French to suspend their use. This stricture was ignored.

On the night of 21 April, a primary school in the district of Gennevilliers was half burned to the ground. There were demands for the army to be called in but Christophe Castaner, the minister of the interior, claimed that this would only escalate the confrontations with the police. Street violence was also reported in the northern towns of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing, and further south in Lyon and Toulouse.

For the time being, a fraught but fragile calm has returned to these trouble spots, partly helped by a video from the injured motorcyclist, released by his lawyer, in which he appealed for the rioters to “return home” and look after their families. But the boredom, frustration and aggression that provoked the riots have not gone away. An Algerian neighbour of mine, Belaid Mechiba, who knows the troubled suburbs of Paris well, recently visited Gennevilliers and discovered that the youths who lived there were as angry as he had ever seen them.

One of the reasons for this anger, Belaid said, made perfect sense: in a time of lockdown these youths feel even more cut off from central Paris. Transport in the northern suburbs is erratic and wildly overcrowded, and if you have to get to work – to a construction site, a hospital or a supermarket – you risk catching Covid-19. Meanwhile, TF1, the main television channel, has played down the riots and reported instead on those who could afford to get out of the city by 17 March – this is more than a quarter of the population of Paris – and who seem to be treating the lockdown almost as an early holiday. By contrast, the youths of Seine-Saint-Denis do not just feel angry, Belaid said, but abandoned and betrayed.

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Usually translated as “relaxation”, relâchement has become a popular word to describe the minor flouting of the rules of lockdown. There is now more long-distance jogging, cycling and some bakeries are even selling flowers and plants – non-essential items that can cheer up even the dreariest balcony in the warm spring sunshine. The government is, however, cautious that relâchement can too quickly become a dangerous, even deadly, form of complacency. There are daily updates from the government on the number of Covid-19 deaths in France – more than 23,000 at the time of writing. The talk now is of déconfinement adapté, a planned and gradual easing of the lockdown.

Édouard Philippe, the prime minister, has announced a six-point plan for reconstruction. The focus will be on public health, including the distribution of masks, the reopening of schools (which will be in stages), starting up businesses again (working from home will be encouraged), opening shops, relaunching the public transport systems and giving permission for public meetings. But the logistical details of the plan have not been worked out. For this reason, confidence in Macron’s government has fallen to 38 per cent from 47 per cent in recent weeks. The hard left and the far right have accused the president of lies and incompetence. Compared to what the French have seen of the shambolic strategy of the UK government, however, Macron’s response has seemed impressive and decisive, if somewhat sluggish at the beginning of the crisis.

The public wants to believe that change is on the way. But I don’t know anybody in Paris who has travel plans much beyond their own quartier, let alone planning a summer holiday. 

This article appears in the 01 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave