Fed-up residents of the Stalingrad neighbourhood in northern Paris have taken to social media to post videos documenting the insecurity, pollution, noise pollution and violence caused by the growing number of crack users and dealers in the area. Residents say that the lockdowns and curfews imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted the problem as local organisations work to ease tensions in the neighbourhood.
If you go to the Stalingrad neighbourhood in northeast Paris, you’ll see lots of people breaking the 6pm curfew imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19. A video posted to Twitter on March 6 shows about a dozen people gathered in the square known as the Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad. Tensions grow as a fight breaks out between two people in the group.
This author of this tweet, who says that he filmed the video from his window, says that he can’t sleep because of the noise. The tweet was written in French and posted by @Stylingrad1. The rough translation is, “10:45pm and we want to sleep, is that too much to ask? @prefpolice, here’s some dealers if you want them. And violent! Still around the lady and her caddy. And the police behind who do nothing.”
Other footage that has appeared online is more worrying. A video posted on February 24 shows a man with a giant knife walking next to the MK2 cinema near the Bassin de la Villette, the largest artificial lake in Paris.
Enfants en pleurs, n’arrivent pas à s’endormir, beuglements des “bourrés” comme ils disent qui résonnent dans tout l’apt. Me disent avoir vu un mec avec un grand 🔪, je leur dis qu’ils ont mal vu mais … cf 40ème sec 🥺, ont peur de sortir dehors, sont en grande détresse psy 😢 pic.twitter.com/PjJ5ROF1h5
— Au cœur de l’enfer à #Stalingrad (@infernal_stalin) February 24, 2021
This video garnered more than 6,700 views on Twitter. It was originally posted by the account @infernal_stalin. The caption, in French, translates roughly as: “Children in tears, unable to sleep, bellowing from the “drunkards” as they say echoing around the apartment. [They] tell me they saw a man with a big [knife], I told them they didn’t but, then 40” in … are afraid to go outside, are in serious psychological distress…”
In late 2019, authorities cleared the so-called “Crack Hill” at the foot of a highway interchange near Porte de la Chapelle. Since then, users of this highly addictive drug have started gathering near Porte d’Aubervilliers and Stalingrad. They keep getting pushed from one neighbourhood to another by successive police operations. Lockdowns and the curfew imposed during the pandemic have made this issue even more visible.
“These people need care and need to find a reason to live”
From his window, Frédéric Francelle looks over the Éole gardens, where a large number of crack users spend their days. The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to him at 6pm one evening and he described what he saw:
The park just closed and I see about 40 people outside the rue Riquet exit. In general, they stay until about 9pm and then head towards the place de la Bataille square in Stalingrad.
During the first lockdown [Editor’s note: from mid-March to mid-May 2020], because they were the only ones outdoors, they were the only thing we saw. (…) There are so many of them that they actually make up a whole separate community that no one interacts with and that everyone is afraid of.
Once, they were partying downstairs at 3am … It’s a densely populated neighborhood and I get the idea that things will escalate. One day, someone is going to go downstairs and start hitting people with a baton.
Francelle says he isn’t convinced that the police are doing anything – especially as there don’t seem to be enough of them to intimidate the dealers and the users. He also isn’t a fan of local groups that hand out sterilised crack pipes to reduce the health risks for users:
It’s like handing a bottle opener and a glass to an alcoholic! Nothing is pushing them to get out of their habits. These people need care, they need a reason to live. I don’t know what should be done, it’s certainly not over yet.
Our Observer, Frédéric Francelle, filmed this video from his window showing crack users below. He posted this tweet on February 11 under the handle @FrancelleFrdri1. It translates from the French roughly as: “When the Eole gardens are closed because of snow… that doesn’t change anything. The users sit in plain sight on rue d’Aubervilliers and smoke in front of everyone.” He then pleads with the police and other officials to do something about it.
‘We are trying to repair the social glue of this neighbourhood’
Some locals have been handing out free breakfasts to migrants and homeless people in the Éole gardens. Groups of crack addicts tend to gather several dozen metres from gardens and sometimes stop by for a free meal.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team met Anna-Louise Milne from the group P’tits dej’ solidaires [Editor’s note: Their name translates to Solidarity Breakfasts]. Milne says that the fact that volunteers already gather in the park every morning has made it easier for social workers, healthcare workers and other volunteers to reach addicts.
We offer people a pleasant, convivial gathering. That makes it possible to reach these people. When three or four nurses go out by themselves, it can be difficult [Editor’s note: because there are a large number of addicts and sometimes they can behave violently]. But our presence creates a good framework for them to reach out.
We are trying to repair the social glue in this neighbourhood. I’ve been living here for 29 years but, unfortunately, people have the tendency to only see their tiny corner of the world. People don’t want addicts living right outside their front door. But pushing them away from one area into another isn’t a solution. We need to change that mindset.
Our work has an effect on neighbourhood life. I’m not sure if it impacts the crack users. We try to talk to them, but it is really hard. We give them coffee and something to eat. That gives them a little sugar, but that’s it. But our presence and our activity improves the quality of this place.
The P’tits Dej’s Solidaires organisation often posts updates about their breakfast programme online. In this post from February 21, they explain that everything went smoothly with their breakfast programme that day. “Even the sometimes ‘unstable’ guests were calm and receptive,” the post reads.
“Our role is to establish contact and then maintain it”
Léon Gomberoff is the director of the Espoir Goutte-d’Or (EGO) service run by a group called Aurore, which welcomes and treats drug users in northeastern Paris:
The people who contact us are generally in psychological distress. Most have social difficulties and often struggle with administrative problems. They want to take a break. We work to try and improve their daily lives.
We also work with people who don’t want to stop doing drugs. Our aim is to make using, which they are going to do anyway, safer for their health. Drug users very often can’t access services for vulnerable people. For example, their habit often means they can’t get access to housing. Our role is to establish contact and maintain it to help get these people care.
Workers with the Aurore Association carry out patrols and hand out safe drug use kits. They also offer addicts housing solutions and other forms of care. Gomberoff explained to our team how his organisation works.
Aurore runs a group living facility for users. Currently, 14 people are living together in the same building with shared common spaces. They also have access to care there. Gomberoff believes this kind of set-up could help solve the issue of crack.
Paris isn’t the only city with this kind of problem. In the 1990s, Amsterdam also faced serious issues with crack. This led to a lot of chaos including riots in the streets and even deaths. But they put in place structures to deal with the issue, including places where people could use safely as well as special living facilities for crack users.
However, the association is struggling to find the space for this kind of centre in a city where the housing market is saturated. And if you want to open a safe use centre, then you really need to work closely with locals and the police.
In 2019, the Paris city government and the police department put 9 million euros towards a plan to deal with the crack issue over the next three years. They planned to create 80 permanent living places for crack users in 2021. A first safe-use centre was opened in the Lariboisière Hospital in Paris’ 10th arrondissement (district) in 2016.
In February 2021, the government of the 19th arrondissement, which is where Stalingrad is located, created a special service called the Citizen Observatory for Addiction (Observatoire citoyen de la toxicomanie), a group made up of elected officials, organisations, shopkeepers and 22 citizens chosen at random from the most affected neighbourhoods.