PARIS (AP) — Neighborhoods in northeast Paris have struggled for years with the scourge of crack cocaine and its use in public. The Summer Olympics, kicking off a year from Wednesday, are offering an impetus to tackle the problem.
Yet despite a surge in arrests and new promises of tougher security around the 2024 Paris Games, some residents question whether the newfound focus is just pushing users elsewhere instead of treating medical and mental health problems, a lack of housing and jobs and other deeper ills at the root of the crack crisis.
Residents in the 18th and 19th arrondissements, or districts, of the French capital have long complained about the open-air crack use in their neighborhoods that stands in sharp contrast to the postcard-perfect tourist areas of Paris farther south.
Small groups of people could be seen using illicit drugs on Sunday at the Porte de la Chapelle metro station and a nearby tram stop located across the street from a new multi-purpose arena that is slated to host badminton and rhythmic gymnastics during the 2024 Olympics. Similar scenes play out along local quays and public parks.
Police cleared out a large encampment of drug users last year at Forceval Square, just outside a huge park that hosts the Paris Philharmonic and other cultural spaces. Since then, police have made an all-out effort to prevent more from gathering, deploying up to 600 officers a day in the northeastern part of the city alone.
Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez promised after taking his job in 2022 to eradicate crack from the streets before the Olympics. On 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 all of 2022. Paris Prosecutor Laure Beccuau said an average of two people a day were brought to justice on charges related both to the consumption and selling of crack this year.
While local residents welcome the attention to the problem, some say the number of users hasn’t necessarily diminished, but instead been dispersed.
“If the chief of police congratulates himself today, it is because there have been no new camps,” said Frédéric Francelle, the spokesperson of Collectif19, an association of 19th-arrondissement residents 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’s current focus appears to be security, drug users need medical and social help.
“We doubt that they’re really trying to treat them by the time the Olympics start,” Francelle said. “They’ll just pressure them to go somewhere else. They will try to move them to the provinces or the suburbs.”
Last month, a treatment center across the street from the new Olympic arena was moved a few blocks away. It is run by two community associations, Gaïa-Paris and Aurore.
Workers at the center say the number of visitors jumped 30% after the Forceval Square site was cleared but has dropped again in recent weeks, to around 150 people per day.
Local authorities have asked the associations to hire more people, open earlier and close later, according to Gaïa-Paris deputy director Victor Deprez.
“The idea is to broaden our capacities,” Deprez said. “In a way, their request is that these people are not visible in the streets during the day.”
Efforts also are underway to increase the number of hospital beds for crack users in the Paris region, up from the 39 at five sites currently to 50 by September, said Amélie Verdier, chief of the Paris region state health agency. She could not provide an estimate of the number of crack users in Paris today, though past estimates ran into several thousand.
Police chief Nunez said the law enforcement presence around the new arena and other places in the city will be increased “by five or 10 times” during the Olympics.
The arena is among only a few venues being built from scratch for the Paris Olympics, all in underprivileged, multi-ethnic neighborhoods to give the areas an economic boost. The facilities will also be used at the Paralympics before being handed over to local clubs and schools.
“The Olympics are an opportunity to ask ourselves questions about the people who remain in the street,” Jamel Lazic, who oversees drug consumption rooms at Gaïa-Paris that are intended the reduce the harm to addicts and prepare them for treatment. “Maybe it will be an opportunity to try to deal with the problem and to open up large-scale facilities that can accommodate these people and have a better strategy. Why not?”
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.
More AP coverage of the Paris Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games