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Paris Suburbs Are Facing Social Disparities Under The Coronavirus Lockdown


France is now in its seventh week of lockdown, and many Parisians have escaped the city to hunker down in country houses. But in the densely packed suburbs around the French capital, residents don't have that luxury. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from a town just outside Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: They're giving out free food here in Clichy-sous-Bois, and there is just a line down the street. There are hundreds and hundreds of people showing up that need help during this confinement.

Clichy-su-Bois is just 12 miles from the center of Paris, but it feels a world away. The town forms part of a huge northern suburb called Seine-Saint-Denis. Instead of historic buildings, there are rows of tower block apartments. Stephane Troussel is an elected official here.

STEPHANE TROUSSEL: (Through interpreter) Seine-Saint-Denis is the youngest and poorest district in France, and this health crisis is shining a harsh light on the social inequalities here.

BEARDSLEY: Fifty-three-year-old Rachida Aziz immigrated to France from Algeria 23 years ago. She says it's difficult to be holed up all day with her family.

RACHIDA AZIZ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The apartment is too small for five people, and we don't have a balcony or a garden, she says. My kids are 7, 15 and 20.

In Paris, managers work from home. In the suburbs, people have frontline jobs as bus drivers, cashiers and garbage collectors.

TROUSSEL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Town councilor Stephane Teste asks people to keep their distance as he hands out soap. He says before the schools closed, many families relied on subsidized school lunches for their kids.

TROUSSEL: (Through interpreter) We started this food bank last week, and 300 families came. The next day, 700 showed up. It's getting harder as the lockdown goes on.

FREDERIC ADNET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Dr. Frederic Adnet is the head of emergency services in Seine-Saint-Denis. He says the death toll here from COVID-19 is much higher than in Paris. The disease is being transmitted within large, cooped-up families, worsening an already bad situation.

ADNET: (Through interpreter) This district had all the red health alerts even before this pandemic. We had the highest infant mortality, the lowest life expectancy and the highest number of AIDS, cancer and tuberculosis cases. You name it.


BEARDSLEY: Paris may be empty, but in the suburbs, the trams are still crowded. Young men hang out on street corners. These suburbs are also legendary for tensions between young people and police. The 2005 riots started right here in Clichy-sous-Bois.


BEARDSLEY: Violence flared again last week after a young man on a scooter ran into a police car and shattered his leg. Youths burned cars. Police fired tear gas. In a video from his hospital bed, the unnamed youth appealed for calm.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: I'm no choirboy, he said. But I ask you to stay home. We will get justice in court.

LAURENT RUSSIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Laurent Russier is mayor of Saint-Denis, the largest town in this district. He says the threat of unrest grows the longer people are shut in.

RUSSIER: (Through interpreter) I am asking the police during their patrols not to provoke people. Sometimes it's better to drop it than to have a situation that turns poisonous. But I'm also calling on young people to stay calm.

BEARDSLEY: Russier says the last thing the suburbs needs on top of this pandemic is violence.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Clichy-sous-Bois, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.