Virus lockdown raises tensions in France's poorest areas

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FILE - In this April 22, 2020, file photo, residents arrive to collect soap, vegetables, fruits and other staples distributed by volunteers from community organizations of ACLEFEU in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb north of Paris. Open-air markets are closed, supermarket prices are skyrocketing and people are out of jobs. Putting food on the table is yet another challenge for the disenfranchised residents of Frances housing projects, where the fallout of the national lockdown over the coronavirus is raising concerns about social unrest. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS – 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 world upside down.

With open air markets closed around Paris, supermarket prices skyrocketing, an out-of-work husband, two children to feed and another on the way, Diatite said even tomatoes were 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 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 minorities that limits their job prospects in France.

Some residents say they felt confined years before France imposed strict coronavirus lockdown measures on March 17.

“I feel the social crisis is growing with confinement,” said Clichy-Sous-Bois Mayor Olivier Klein.