Joining more than 1,000 others, Djemba Diatite stood for hours in line to feed her growing family, grateful for handouts of fruits, vegetables and soap. It was her first time accepting charity, but she had no choice. The coronavirus pandemic has turned her small world upside down.
With open air markets closed, supermarket prices skyrocketing, an out-of-work husband, two children to feed and another on the way, Diatite said even tomatoes are now too expensive.
“This is my only solution,” she said, relieved that a local group in her Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois stepped in with help.
Clichy-sous-Bois — where fiery nationwide riots started in 2005 — is just 23 kilometers (14 miles) northeast of the French capital, but with its rows of housing projects, restless youth and residents teetering on the poverty line, it feels light years away.
The town mayor, seeing a looming crisis triggered by food shortages, sounded the alarm, and with scattered unrest simmering in impoverished suburbs, the French government announced a plan for urgent food assistance of 39 million euros (nearly $42.1 million) for communities in need.
Providing food aid might be the most fixable of the longstanding problems in the heavily immigrant housing projects ringing France’s large cities. Leader after leader has tried and failed to find remedies for often-dilapidated and cramped housing, chronic delinquency, a thriving drug trade and, above all, the entrenched discrimination against minority communities that limits their job prospects in France.
Some residents say they felt confined years before the strict coronavirus lockdown measures imposed March 17.
“I feel the social crisis is growing with confinement,” said Clichy-Sous-Bois Mayor Olivier Klein.
“We see numerous people in need, urgently, in a way we’ve never seen,” he told France Info radio. “In these tense neighborhoods, the smallest spark can trigger still more tension.”
Alongside the food crisis, there has been scattered violence, with youths targeting French police in confrontations that end in clouds of tear gas but no known injuries, including in Clichy-sous-Bois. The town is where filmmaker Ladj Ly shot his Oscar-nominated modern police 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 motorcycle into the open door of a police car in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, northwest of Paris. Claims that police were at fault spread across the internet. From his hospital bed, he implored gangs to “go home,” in a video released by his lawyer.
Clichy-sous-Bois was the takeoff point of nationwide rioting 15 years ago. Nightly TV images of the destruction awakened many in France to large swaths of a population they barely knew existed. The lockdown is again shining a spotlight on the still mostly invisible lives of those who struggle even in the best of times.
The town is in the poorest region of mainland France, Seine-Saint-Denis, where the overall mortality rate has more than doubled since March 1, when the country began counting virus deaths, according to national statistics agency Insee. Experts have blamed the density of the population, the difficulty to enact social distancing in often large families and the fact that those in poorer areas often have jobs with a higher risk of infection. Statistics were not available to show whether the virus was solely responsible for the higher mortality rates.
“This crisis is simply making (the problems) much more visible,” said Mohamed Mechmache, who heads the association ACLeFeu, or Enough Fire, which grew out of the riots and is distributing food in Clichy-sous-Bois. Thousands now line up twice a week for the distribution, organized after the lockdown began.
Diatite is typical of many in her predicament. Her husband drives a bus at Paris’ Orly Airport, which closed last month due to the lull in air traffic, putting him out of work. The growing family lives in a 26-square-meter (less than 280-square foot) apartment.
“There is a very large accumulation of inequalities that often increase” in a crisis, said sociologist Marie-Helene 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 towns.
Economic, social and race factors bind the suburbs in an interlocking grip of inequality, though France does not keep statistics on ethnic origins, in line with its ideal of a melting pot.
“We’re moving toward a large social crisis,” Bacque said.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said since the start of the lockdown, police have carried out checks on 220,000 people in the Seine-Saint-Denis region alone to ensure confinement rules are respected, more than double the national average.
Some police attribute scattered violence in some neighborhoods to the squeeze on drug dealers during the lockdown. “Traffickers want to eliminate all police presence,” tweeted Linda Kebbab, an official of the police union SGP-FO.
Bachir Ghouinem, who helps ACLeFeu distribute food, dismissed the violence as just “another problem” among the many facing poor suburbs. But he is one of the rare individuals willing to speak of a worst-case scenario should food distributions stop.
“Rioting and pillaging. We’re afraid of that,” he said. “If it happens here, it happens everywhere.”
Mechmache, the leader of the ACLeFeu, takes a longer view.
“I dare to hope that there will be an awareness at the end of this lockdown 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 the moment to return to the fundamental challenge, more equality.”
She said she doubts that kind of political investment will come to pass, but said “an explosion is not to be excluded.”
A tram that allows residents to connect more easily with Paris — and jobs — opened in December in Clichy-sous-Bois. In the nearby housing project known as Les Bosquets, dilapidated high rises and other buildings used by drug dealers were razed several years ago, fulfilling a promise made by the government after the 2005 riots.
“But you don’t transform the social dimension by fixing ... architectural problems,” Bacque said.