PARIS - On a national discrimination hotline that she helps manage, Rafaelle Parlier hears troubling reports: a veiled woman fined by police for using her veil as a face mask, and a man of North African descent similarly sanctioned for picking up his wife, a nurse, from her hospital shift — although both had appropriate justifications.
“These are practices we usually denounce,” said Parlier, who works for anti-discrimination coalition En finir avec les contrôles au faciès (End Racial Profiling). “The confinement just makes it easier.”
If COVID-19 touches all of France, its effects are not being felt equally. Poor, ethnically diverse residents are suffering disproportionately, rights activists and local officials say. The fallout varies, from reports of police intimidation and violence to more arduous conditions under lockdown and potentially more coronavirus cases than elsewhere in the country.
“The problem with this epidemic is that it underscores all the other pre-existing inequalities,” said Laurent Russier, mayor of Saint-Denis, a working-class Paris suburb with a large immigrant population. “And Saint-Denis is marked by sharp inequalities.”
Few areas manifest the national disparities more sharply than the broader Seine-Saint-Denis department, France’s poorest region, where Russier’s town is located. A recent government report found a sharp spike in deaths during the last half of March, when the COVID-19 lockdown began — higher than in neighboring departments.
While the government has not linked the uptick to coronavirus, local officials list a raft of underlying weaknesses in the banlieues, as the gritty, working-class suburbs are called.
Disparities ‘that kill’
In an op-ed piece, Russier joined a half-dozen mayors and elected officials in outlining several disparities “that kill” in the Seine-Saint-Denis department — in justice, security, health, education and jobs.
While some Parisians headed to country houses to wait out the pandemic, and a number are telecommuting for work, many of Russier’s residents have "front-line" jobs as health aides, supermarket cashiers and delivery workers, sometimes without protective masks. Peeling housing projects sometimes pack large, intergenerational families into tiny, unhealthy spaces, creating coronavirus clusters in some cases.
“So if someone catches COVID-19 in an apartment that’s multigenerational, the contagion is more rapid,” Russier said, “and the confinement is harder.”
Some banlieue graveyards report they are close to saturation, a situation that has not been helped by the recent uptick in deaths.
“Usually, I sign three or four burial certificates a week. But over the last few weeks, I’m signing three or four a day,” Sylvine Thomassin, mayor of another working-class suburb, told Le Monde newspaper.
The message seems to have hit home with the French government. Addressing the nation Monday, President Emmanuel Macron — who has earned underwhelming marks for addressing banlieue grievances — promised nearly $1 billion more in financial aid for poor families.
France’s banlieues have long been considered flashpoints for unresolved social and economic grievances. In 2005, they exploded into rioting — a theme of the recent hit movie “Les Miserables” — revealing the tense and violent relationship between police and banlieue youngsters.
Old story, new context
Today, the coronavirus simply offers a new context for discriminatory treatment, some activists say. Several videos posted on social media show police slapping and otherwise harassing youngsters for allegedly violating tough lockdown measures. In some cases, the young people have filed legal complaints.
“The issue of police violence is not new. It’s the usual targets, this time with the pretext of enforcing the confinement,” said Lanna Hollo, senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative in Paris.
"There are young people terrified to go out,” she added. “They may be the ones charged with the shopping or who have to go to work, and they’re afraid of being abused.”
In the Seine-Saint-Denis department, mayors and other officials say residents are largely following lockdown measures. Russier is among them.
But he denies excessive police behavior — at least in his town.
"There are some youngsters who don’t respect confinement, in some cases, defiantly,” he said. “But police are being careful. The idea is to avoid confrontation. They are very, very vigilant not to pour oil into the fire.”