France is blaming the poor for their own deaths. But look at how it treats them

French police officers speak with a pedestrian in Saint-Ouen, near Paris, on April 2. (Ludovic Marin/Afp Via Getty Images)
French police officers speak with a pedestrian in Saint-Ouen, near Paris, on April 2. (Ludovic Marin/Afp Via Getty Images)

As France approaches its eighth week under lockdown, the covid-19 pandemic has thrown the nation’s divisions and inequalities into stark relief. One of the most palpable is the stigma directed toward residents of the poorest neighborhoods and suburbs, where many minorities live.

Lockdown in the suburbs challenged by violence and trafficking,” read one sensationalist headline. There are “young men with hoodies with a menacing look, who seem to use masks for the sole purpose of protecting their anonymity rather protecting themselves from an infection,” the piece complained. Another piece about Seine Saint-Denis — the poorest department, or regional division, in France’s mainland — was titled “Coronavirus in Seine Saint-Denis: record number of fines, police and justice get tougher.” The article bemoaned the supposed “indiscipline” of “the 93,” as Seine Saint-Denis is famously referred to.

The coverage and commentary of other communities were very different. When discussing similar behavior during the lockdown in Paris, the newspaper Le Parisien posted an article titled “Confinement in Paris: Considering this weather, it is hard not to go out.” The subtext of these differences is unmistakable.

So when the first figures of the effect of the coronavirus showed an abnormally high death rate in low-income neighborhoods such as Seine Saint-Denis, it was the victims who were blamed. They were the perfect scapegoats, people who have always been labeled the troublemakers in French society.

The truth is very different. The problem is not discipline but poverty.

In a country where 17 percent of Parisians were able to leave the region to stay in a second home, the poorest have no choice but to stay in small, overcrowded apartments that make social distancing impossible. Most of the people living in these neighborhoods are those who still have to go out to work and use public transportation — people who work as cashiers, care assistants, cleaners, security guards and officers. They are risking their health to provide the services that ensure the country is still functioning — and are being unfairly singled out in the process.

For years, reports have highlighted the weakness of the public services in areas where education, justice, safety and health are not easily or equally accessible. In Seine Saint-Denis, there are 54.6 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 71.7 in the whole Paris region. People have trouble accessing basic health care. Today, the consequences of that are blatant.

In an op-ed this month, five mayors and the head of the Seine Saint-Denis department revealed the problem they were facing. According to them, the network of urban doctors in Seine Saint-Denis is much smaller than in other places, and the population is much more vulnerable due to pathologies that expose them to chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease. And these disparities are amplified because “they tend to wait before going to the doctor or to the hospital because they fear the expensiveness,” according to Mohamed Gnabaly, one the mayors.

Christophe Prudhomme, the spokesman of the emergency doctors union of France, launched a call to help the department, adding that its hospitals were in adeplorable state.” As someone who worked in the community for four decades, he can testify that the situation has been degrading over the years.

Sadly, the results of these inequalities are entirely predictable. According to Guillaume Duval, a journalist who covers the economy, excess mortality in Seine Saint-Denis is twice as high as in Paris and even more than what it was in the Haut-Rhin department, which is one of the first departments hit by the virus and known to be one of the epicenters of the national spread. Between March 21 and 27, the mortality rate increased 63 percent in Seine Saint-Denis, more than in any other department of the region, compared with just 32 percent in Paris, for example.

As is the case in all the poorest neighborhoods in the world, crime is an issue in Seine Saint-Denis. But the most harmful violence is social and economic — particularly as the lockdown means that each person needs to carry a certificate justifying the reason for their trip when going outside. That has created room for the police to amplify their control and disproportionately target populations who were already overpoliced. To promote his tough law-and-order policies, Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner said in an interview that there were twice as many checks in Seine Saint-Denis as in the rest of the country.

Perpetuating the narrative that people who live in impoverished neighborhoods do not care about the law places a stigma on populations who need help. Instead of constructing the same story about the country’s poorest people again and again, maybe we should use the time and resources to ensure they are taken care of — in this pandemic and beyond.

Rokhaya Diallo is a journalist and filmmaker.

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