PARIS (AP) — Neighborhoods in northeast Paris have been battling the scourge of crack cocaine and its public consumption for years. The Summer Olympics, which begin a year from Wednesday, provide momentum to tackle the problem.
Yet despite a spike in arrests and new promises of tighter security around the Paris 2024 Games, some locals wonder if the new focus is just pushing users elsewhere instead of addressing the medical and mental health issues, lack of housing and jobs and other deeper ills driving the crack crisis.
Residents of the French capital’s 18th and 19th arrondissements, or neighborhoods, have long complained about open-air crack use in their neighborhoods, in stark contrast to the postcard-perfect tourist areas of Paris further south.
Small groups of people could be seen using illicit drugs on Sunday at the Porte de la Chapelle metro station and tram stop, located opposite a new multi-purpose arena that is set to host badminton and rhythmic gymnastics during the 2024 Olympics. Similar scenes are playing out along local quays and public parks.
Last year, police cleared a large encampment of drug addicts on Place Forceval, just outside a huge park that houses the Philharmonie de Paris and other cultural spaces. Since then, the police have made every effort to prevent more gatherings, deploying up to 600 officers a day in the northeastern part of the city alone.
Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez promised after taking office in 2022 to eradicate crack from the streets before the Olympics. Thursday declared the efforts a success.
Police have arrested 255 people for selling crack cocaine in Paris so far this year, Nuñez said, compared to 285 in 2022. Paris prosecutor Laure Beccuau said an average of two people a day are being brought to justice on charges related to both using and selling crack this year.
While local residents welcome the attention to the problem, some say the number of users hasn’t necessarily decreased, but rather been dispersed.
“If the prefect of police is pleased today, it’s because there have been no new camps,” said Frédéric Francelle, spokesperson for Collectif19, an association of residents of the 19th district calling for an end to drug use in the streets. “But there are still places where consumption is done in the open.”
Francelle said that while the city seems to be focused on safety right now, drug addicts need medical and social help.
“We doubt they’re really trying to heal them by the time the Olympics start,” Francelle said. “They’re just going to pressure them to go somewhere else. They will try to move them to the provinces or the suburbs.
Last month, a treatment center across from the new Olympic arena was moved a few blocks away. It is led by two community associations, Gaïa-Paris and Aurore.
Workers at the center say visitor numbers jumped 30% after the Forceval Square site was cleared, but fell again, to around 150 people a day.
Local authorities have asked associations to hire more people, open earlier and close later, according to the deputy director of Gaïa-Paris, Victor Deprez.
“The idea is to expand our capabilities,” Deprez said. “In a way, their request is that these people are not visible on the streets during the day.”
Efforts are also underway to increase the number of hospital beds for crack users in the Paris region, from 39 at five sites currently to 50 by September, said Amélie Verdier, head of the Paris region public health agency. She could not provide an estimate of the number of crack users in Paris today, although past estimates have been in the thousands.
Police Chief Nunez said law enforcement presence around the new arena and other locations in the city will be increased “by five or 10 times” during the Olympics.
The arena is among the few venues built from scratch for the Paris Olympics, all located in disadvantaged and multi-ethnic neighborhoods to provide an economic boost to the neighborhoods. The facilities will also be used during the Paralympic Games before being handed over to local clubs and schools.
“The Olympics are an opportunity to ask questions about the people who remain on the streets,” said Jamel Lazic, who oversees drug consumption rooms in Gaïa-Paris intended to reduce the harm of drug addicts and prepare them for treatment. “Maybe it will be an opportunity to try to deal with the problem and open large-scale facilities that can accommodate these people and have a better strategy. Why not?”
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to it.
More AP coverage of the Paris Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games